‘Four suicides involved’
Thu, 03/16/2017 - 5:00am admin
Custer Battlefield Museum director seeks to ‘terminate’ BLM law enforcement function
By Andrew Turck, Big Horn County News
In the wake of a fourth suicide following Bureau of Land Management investigations, Custer Battlefield Museum Director Christopher Kortlander has begun speaking out against what he describes as the organization’s “intimidation and threats.” The Garryowen resident has declined comment on his own experiences with the BLM in the past, but said the Dec. 31, 2016 death of Robert “Bob” Weaver in Cody, Wyo. changed his approach.
The three other suicides cited by Kortlander stemmed from a June 2009 joint BLM-FBI operation in the Four Corners area of southern Utah. During the sting, federal agents capped two years of undercover work by arresting more than 20 people for allegedly trafficking in American Indian artifacts. Interrogations – and the deaths – followed.
By late December 2016, Kortlander said, he had decided to put his own past dealings with the BLM behind him. After all, the BLM had dropped their nearly five-year investigation in 2009, where they alleged that he dealt in fraudulent artifacts and eagle feathers. In 2014, after a lawsuit by Kortlander, they also had returned 22 items confiscated from him six years previous. These items, in addition to eagle and migratory bird feathers, included a war bonnet, medicine bag, headdress and shield.
According to his 2014 letter to the U.S. House of Representatives, he had spent “hundreds of thousands of dollars and nearly every waking moment” fighting the federal government. With the legal proceedings done, he could drop the issue and get back to running his museum.
This outlook changed following Weaver’s death.
Now, Kortlander has thrown his support behind a Jan. 24 bill sponsored by Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah designed to “terminate the law enforcement functions” of the BLM and U.S. Forest Service. By halting BLM incursions, Kortlander believes a possible fifth suicide can be avoided.
Chaffetz, chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, was notified of Weaver’s death by Kortlander shortly after proposing the bill.
To spread word of his experience and views on BLM law enforcement, Kortlander gave an interview to radio host John B. Wells in mid-February on the “Ark Midnight” program in Dallas. In the future, he plans to appear on more nationally-syndicated radio stations.
“You and I wouldn’t be talking now unless there was a person who took his own life Dec. 31 in Cody, Wyo.,” Kortlander told Wells. “There’s four suicides involved after the Bureau of Land Management SWAT team gets done raiding people. [They] intimidate and bully, and threaten you...to the point that you don’t even want to live on the face of the Earth anymore.”
Weaver, known by many Cody residents as “Bob the Geologist,” died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound three days after investigators from the BLM and Office of Inspector General arrived at his trailer with search warrants. These warrants were served regarding his allegedly illegal activities collecting rocks and fossils on public land.
BLM officials described the meetings with Weaver as cordial and voluntary, relayed in a Feb. 1 article by the Cody Enterprise, but friends of the man claimed the investigation was unnecessarily aggressive and took an emotional toll on him.
One of Weaver’s friends states in the article that the rock enthusiast, at the time of the investigation, was on permanent disability for post-traumatic stress disorder after the death of his wife from cancer.
Karen Lenhardt, communications chief for BLM Wyoming in Cheyenne, told the Enterprise that Weaver’s death was a tragedy. She added, however, that her organization still “has the important task of managing and protecting our natural wonders on behalf of all Americans.”
On March 31, 2005, Kortlander had his own run-in with the BLM that he described as a “‘raid’...conducted as a military style assault on a domestic terrorist cell” following his alleged removal of artifacts from federal lands. Artifacts – defined in a BLM press release as items of cultural value more than 100 years old – may not be “removed, damaged, disturbed, excavated or transferred” from public land without a federal permit. According to Kortlander, he recovers artifacts from private land, which is legal.
Twenty-four agents, he said, stormed his museum in the 2005 incident “with M-16s, shotguns and battering rams,” and pointed firearms at his employees and museum interns while executing their search warrant.
The BLM search warrant application states that agents were looking for evidence of mail or wire fraud regarding Kortlander’s online sales of artifacts on eBay. Among the items in question, the application continues, were “[three] late 19th century U.S. Army Eagle buttons and one uniform suspender buckle with affixed data dots.”
BLM agents had sold Kortlander the artifacts while undercover, the application states, and later purchased two buttons without revealing their identities. In the way of probable cause for the search, the application notes difficulties with a certificate that accompanied one of the purchased buttons and complaints “from a couple different sources.”
According to the application, these sources believed Kortlander “was selling artifacts purported to have been recovered from the battlefield where the infamous Battle of the Little Bighorn took place.”
“For eight hours, the BLM agents conducting the ‘raid’ at Garryowen, continually threatened me with never again seeing my special needs son, stating that I was facing decades in a federal prison,” Kortlander stated in his letter to the House. “BLM federal law enforcement agents verbally harassed me, accusing me of being a baby killer, a swindler and a con man, and asserting that I was going to be charged with nine federal felonies.”
Despite two searches of the Battlefield Museum by fully-armed BLM agents in 2005 and 2008, no wrongdoing was discovered and no charges were filed against Kortlander. Because no charges were filed, he didn’t get the “right to a speedy trial” guaranteed under the Sixth Amendment.
“Since I was never indicted and never charged, they had a chance to persecute me for four years and eight months,” Kortlander said Friday. “We were asking them to charge me with a crime, so we could get in front of a jury and prove my innocence, but they never, ever, ever did that.”
Rep. Chaffetz’s Law Enforcement for Local Lands Act, Kortlander believes, offers an opportunity to “delegate authority to the local level and get rid of our federal police” in the BLM and Forest Service. Bill 622, currently in its introduction phase, would require the termination of BLM and Forest Service law enforcement by Sept. 30.
The Utah representative had also sponsored Bill 621, Disposal of Excess Federal Lands Act, which called for sale of 3.3 million acres of BLM land identified by the Clinton Administration as having no public purpose. He withdrew the bill on Feb. 2, citing objections from people worried about limits to their hunting and fishing opportunities.
Many comments on Chaffetz’s Instagram post announcing that “621 dies tomorrow” requested that he withdraw Bill 622 as well, with some comments stressing the threat of increased poaching without federal oversight. Kortlander, a 2002 candidate for Big Horn County sheriff, sees it differently.
“The bottom line is we don’t need federal Department of the Interior police,” Kortlander said. “We need the FBI, we need U.S. marshals, we need the DEA, but we don’t need a [federal] force policing our U.S. citizens. That’s why we have state police and county sheriffs.”
BLM staff are prevented from commenting publicly on proposed legislation until the Department of Interior, who oversees the organization, has taken an official position on the matter. As of yet, Interior has not commented on Bill 622.
According to the bill, local and state law enforcement operating on federal land will be financed partially through block grants. Thirty percent of funding would be determined by the proportion of federal land located in a state. Seventy percent would be based on the number of employees in law enforcement agencies assigned to the state.
Money saved by dissolving BLM and Forest Service law enforcement agencies, Kortlander said, could be used by the Trump Administration in their plan to hire 15,000 Immigrations and Customs Enforcement Officers and border patrol agents. President Donald Trump, who Kortlander referred to as the “new sheriff in the White House,” plans to use these officers and agents to guard his proposed wall along the border of Mexico.
“[Trump] said he was going to try to cut from other federal agencies to help fund the new security,” Kortlander said. “What better place to cut from than [the BLM]?
“But who am I? I’m just a guy who got raided twice.”
Chaffetz’s bill may be viewed online at www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/622/text.