Raid, rinse, repeat – Part I

Custer Battlefield Museum director writes new book to combat federal overreach

Photo by Andrew Turck

Custer Battlefield Museum Director Christopher Kortlander holds a copy of his new book, Arrow to the Heart: The Last Battle at the Little Big Horn: The Custer Battlefield Museum vs. The Federal Government. Beside him is a headdress that he recovered from the Bureau of Land Management after the agency seized it as part of a nearly five-year investigation where no charges were filed.

Courtesy photo

Brian Cornell, a former special agent for the Bureau of Land Management, looks through a table of evidence. Cornell was involved in an undercover BLM operation that included a  suspender buckle and three buttons, the sale of which was intended as a jump-off point for an investigation into the Custer Battlefield Museum.

It was a cold winter night on Dec. 13, 2004 when Christopher Kortlander, director of the Custer Battlefield Museum in Garryowen, remembered feeling the sting of a brisk breeze as “a sense of dread” washed over him.

Reflecting on that moment in his new book, Arrow to the Heart: The Last Battle at the Little Big Horn: The Custer Battlefield Museum vs. The Federal Government, something didn’t feel right about the man attempting to pay for gas using “old-time stuff” from the front seat of his Chevy pickup.

“My uncle used to collect it and I got this stuff when he died,” he remembered the man saying as he showed him the items: three late 19th century U.S. Army Eagle buttons and a uniform suspender buckle.

The museum gas station was the only place to fill up a vehicle “for 20 miles west and 75 miles east,” Kortlander wrote, “so encountering motorists down on their luck happened quite frequently.” To avoid legal complications, he noted, he usually rejected – on the spot – anyone attempting to barter artifacts.

The sale of artifacts – defined by the Bureau of Land Management as items of cultural value more than 100 years old – is a federal crime if they are taken from public lands. According to the BLM website, collecting artifacts without a permit can lead to “prison sentences of up to one year or more, and/or possible fines in the tens of thousands of dollars.”

“When artifacts are removed, a piece of America’s story – one that we all have a right to share and understand – is gone forever,” the website states. “These public land resources belong to all Americans. They are our legacy to future generations.”

If recovered from private land, however, it is legal to obtain and sell such items.

With the man in the museum parking lot, Kortlander wrote, he preferred to avoid any chance of guessing the source of the artifacts incorrectly and incurring the wrath of the federal government.

“I’m not in the mood to purchase any more battlefield relics,” he remembered telling the man, who he said identified himself as Rudy Zapada.

Still, he continued, “I thought his wanting to sell something rather than take charity was rather honorable.” Plus, Kortlander felt sorry for the man due to his “road-weary” and “disheveled” appearance. His museum intern already had reported to him that the man was “desperate.”

Eventually, he would buy the items for $50 – the man had stated they were family heirlooms, after all. In the coming years, they would became “the most cursed objects I ever possessed,” according to Kortlander, and “cost me my health and a large part of my business, to the tune of a million dollars or more.”

Undercover sting

“Rudy Zapada” – a slight difference from his name in court documents – turned out to be an undercover special agent with the BLM, and his artifacts reportedly recovered via federal search warrant in 1993 and marked with federal data dots to track them. Following the New Year in 2005, Kortlander would sell four buttons via eBay to someone he described as an excitable person who claimed over the phone that he wanted to get his “hands on a 7th Cav button” for his son – and later three more for his son’s friends. This man also was revealed to be a then undercover agent named Brian Cornell.

Special agents, according to an email from the BLM press office, “actively pursue investigations” into criminal acts including the illegal cultivation of marijuana, arson, and threats or assaults on agency employees in addition to the theft of artifacts.

Even today, Kortlander checks items that he sells to make sure none contain data dots. Court documents state they are transparent and “about the size of a grain of sand.”

“[The] whole situation did not sit right with me,” he wrote of his meeting with “Zapada” that winter night. “I should have listened to my instincts and my better judgment. But I didn’t.”

Battlefield Museum raid

It was an overcast spring morning on March 31, 2005 when two dozen members of federal law enforcement surrounded his museum armed with M-16s, shotguns and battering rams. A BLM search warrant application for the museum states that agents were looking for evidence of mail or wire fraud involving Kortlander’s online sales of artifacts on eBay.

At no point in the warrant does it specifically state Kortlander did anything illegal. Because he wasn’t charged with a crime, he didn’t get the “right to a speedy trial” guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment, meaning BLM investigations into his business could continue indefinitely.

“Effort was made to minimize the effect upon the business,” former BLM Special Agent Bart Fitzgerald told the Big Horn County News shortly after the raid, “however, we did seize some artifacts.”

Over the course of this raid and a second in 2008, agents would confiscate – in addition to many other objects and documents – 22 items including eagle and migratory bird feathers, along with a war bonnet, medicine bag, headdress and shield. These items wouldn’t be returned until March 2014, following an aggressive legal battle by Kortlander.

The feathers, he writes, were donated to the museum in accordance with the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, which is “a legal practice among Native American and Western museums in the United States.”

In exchange for his museum items’ return, Kortlander agreed not to pursue further claims against the government – his claim of $188 million in damages had been dismissed in federal court about two years prior. U.S. Federal Claims Judge Marian Horn, in siding with the government, stated the seizure of his artifacts was within the realm of federal police powers and therefore within the confines of the law.

According to Al Nash, chief of communications for the Montana/Dakotas State Office of the BLM, he could find no one left in his section of the agency with “any firsthand” knowledge of the 2005 investigation to comment. Requests for comment to the BLM’s national office went unanswered.

Cornell, the former BLM special agent who wrote the search warrant application for the museum, was contacted by the News at his current location – the Bureau of Reclamation, where he serves as special agent for the Great Plains Region. Citing the settlement with Kortlander, he also declined comment.

Kortlander, after showing the settlement stated “full disclosure” was allowed for all involved, had plenty to say about Cornell and none of it was positive. In Arrow to the Heart, the agent often is depicted to be in varying states of anger.

Shortly before the 2005 raid, Kortlander’s day had started with a Big Sky Radio interview in nearby Hardin after being named Tourism Person of the Year in Montana. According to the former radio host, Rich Solberg, the museum director received a call just as they cleared the airwaves.

About a half hour later, after s panicked phone conversation with a friend – which he at first believed to be part of an April Fools’ joke – Kortlander would speed the 20 miles back to Garryowen to find his museum under siege and BLM agents threatening him with nine federal felonies.

Cornell, according to the book, introduced himself over the phone by yelling past his friend, “If you’re not here in 30 minutes, we’re going to tear this place apart!”

“Like a scene coming to life out of the dystopian future described in George Orwell’s 1984, I saw a host of black-clad federal agents in hiked-up jackboots swarming Garryowen,” Kortlander wrote of his arrival at the museum. “Some of the agents’ faces were masked in riot helmets with the letters ‘FBI’ and ‘BLM’ scrawled across the backs of their flak jackets in large, white-block letters.”

Solberg – who happens to be a longtime friend of Kortlander’s – arrived to the scene three hours later, where agents attempted to challenge his passage, but he was “not easily refused.” Kortlander was “wellchaperoned” at the time of the raid, Solberg said, and agents were moving through areas in the building that had “nothing to do with Chris’ business.”

Throughout his struggle with the BLM, Kortlander wrote in his book’s acknowledgments, Solberg would serve as a loyal confidant and counselor.

“I’ve seen that it has taken...a lot of energy out of his life,” Solberg said of the BLM investigation. “He keeps going, as you would expect him to keep going, but – having observed him for many years – he wants to do it all, and he’s gotten older and just doesn’t have the energy.

“If the government hadn’t done this, Garryowen would be three times what it is right now. It would have grown and prospered, and been an even bigger asset to the community.”

Picking up the pieces

After a nearly five-year investigation by the BLM, a shattered retirement plan and no trial, Kortlander put his background in historical research to use by studying boxes of both court-related and personal documents, and compiling them into Arrow to the Heart. This book, he believes, shows a pattern of corruption and espionage by U.S. Department of Interior law enforcement – including those of the BLM – that links cases across the nation.

As with the museum, he wrote, another series of raids harmed a business in 2009 and 2011 when the Gibson Guitar Corporation in Nashville and Memphis, Tenn. was stormed by the Department of Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service agents for allegedly trafficking in wood obtained illegally from Madagascar. Under the Lacey Act, those who use endangered wood must be able to trace the supply chain for their products back to the original source.

The instrument company’s CEO Henry Juszkiewicz vigorously denied government allegations – at one point in 2011 beneath the sun for half hour during the hottest part of an August day, National Public Radio stated – but eventually settled out of court on Aug. 6, 2012. In the settlement, Gibson agreed to pay a $300,000 penalty, forfeit $262,000 in wood seized by agents and donate $50,000 toward efforts by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to preserve endangered wood species.

“Statistics reveal that 95 percent of federal cases never go to trial,” Kortlander wrote. “[Department of Justice] prosecutors have engineered the system to make it too risky for people or businesses to go to trial, often railroading them into a guilty plea although they are innocent.

“The government has effectively built a conviction machine, not a system of justice.”

Ignacia Moreno, U.S. assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, told Reuters that through the settlement, Gibson acknowledged its fault in the matter. The company, she said, “failed to act on information that the Madagascar ebony it was purchasing may have violated laws intended to limit over-harvesting and conserve valuable wood species from Madagascar.”

In a Gibson Guitar press release, however, Juszkiewicz stated he decided to settle the matter out of practicality, rather than what he believed to be actual legal fault. According to NPR, Juszkiewicz said in 2011 that, as with Kortlander, the government wouldn’t “tell him exactly how – or if – his company has violated” the law.

“We felt compelled to settle as…proving our case at trial would have cost millions of dollars and taken a very long time to resolve,” he wrote in the press release. “We feel that Gibson was inappropriately targeted [on] a matter that could have been addressed with a simple contact by a caring human being representing the government.”

Even this month, Kortlander said, he has a “gut feeling” the pattern of federal overreach was continued on April 9 when FBI agents raided the office and hotel room of Michael Cohen, the personal lawyer for U.S. President Donald Trump. According to a Washington Post article published the day of the raid, “three people with knowledge of the case” said Cohen is being investigated for bank fraud, wire fraud and campaign finance violations.

“It’s an attack on our country in the truest sense,” Trump said during a press meeting the following day. “It’s an attack on what we all stand for.”

On Sept. 30, 2011, Kortlander went through the Ninth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals and obtained access to search warrant materials drafted by the BLM for his museum. As a result of this case, according to the Ninth Circuit, the public now has the right to obtain search warrant materials upon the termination of an investigation. This appeal’s decision, Kortlander said, could come in handy for Cohen in the future.

Each point Kortlander made during a five hour interview at his museum in mid-March was addressed using one of many accompanying documents organized at his office. He mentioned that he likes to keep backup copies of documents in case the first one is lost.

“There’s never going to be a time in history again,” Kortlander said, “that all the stars are going to line up like right now in 2018...for us to tell this story.”

Next week, the Big Horn County News will be examining fatalities related to BLM investigations, which Kortlander cites as the motivating factor in deciding to speak about his experiences and write Arrow to the Heart. To learn more about or purchase the book, go online to arrowtotheheartbook.com/book/ .

In addition, those who would like to comment on the issue for use in the next parts of this story – two more articles are expected – may email Editor Andrew Turck at news@bighorncountynews.com. Federal agencies, especially the BLM, who would like their side of the story to be heard are encouraged.

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