TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Eleven people from Florida and two from Georgia have been charged in what state investigators called a criminal conspiracy to sell artifacts stolen from state-owned lands in Florida.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers Wednesday described a nearly $2 million black market in illegal historical artifacts.
Items shown at a news conference in Tallahassee included dozens of arrowheads and pot shards. But many stolen artifacts likely will never be recovered.
"This looting didn't just take artifacts from the ground," said Robert Bendus, Florida's state historic preservation officer. "It took history away from this generation and from future generations of Floridians."
The FWC's Maj. Curtis Brown said those arrested were the "main dealers and looters." The youngest defendant is 25; the oldest is 74.
"This network is a very tight-knit group of folks," Brown said. "They had collectors they dealt with and they'd sell around the state and around the country."
Brown confirmed that the investigation is ongoing. When asked if some of the collectors who bought illegal artifacts would also be arrested, he said, "There may be additional violations found."
Other officers served search warrants on four homes in Florida and found artifacts and other illegal items, according to a FWC statement. Two of those arrested also were charged with drug possession.
Investigators said the recent arrests resulted from a two-year-long investigation called Operation Timacua, named after an Indian tribe that once lived in parts of Florida and Georgia. The probe started after complaints of looting lodged over the last five years from around the state.
An undercover operative posed as a buyer, Brown said. The looted artifacts often were listed on websites such as Craigslist and also turned up at trade shows.
Asking prices for some of the artifacts were as high as $100,000, Brown told reporters.
Some of those charged were accused of sneaking onto historical sites -mostly in northern Florida - at night and digging in the dirt with hand tools.
The charges listed include multiple counts of violation of historical resources, dealing in stolen property and illegal removal of artifacts by excavation.