BILLINGS — A cache of American Indian artifacts seized during raids on a Custer-themed museum in southeast Montana includes items allegedly stolen from members of the Crow Tribe.
The allegation was detailed in court documents filed by the government in part to explain why it still has the artifacts three years after federal agents dropped their criminal probe of the Custer Battlefield Museum in Garryowen.
Federal officials investigated museum director Christopher Kortlander for four years for alleged artifact fraud. No charges were filed and the case was dropped in 2009.
But the fight over 22 artifacts seized in raids on Kortlander's museum and businesses in 2005 and 2008 grinds on.
The government contends the artifacts are illegal "contraband" that cannot be returned. They include war bonnets, medicine bundles and other items that contain feathers from protected eagles and other migratory birds.
Kortlander has said he was in legal possession of the items. He sued the government to force it to return the artifacts, although one of his attorneys said Monday that any stolen items would be returned.
"If we can verify that these items were stolen, the museum will return them to the rightful owner," said Kortlander attorney Penelope Strong.
Strong added that she had requested any stolen item reports made to tribal, state or federal authorities that might corroborate the claims. There was no allegation by the government that Kortlander was directly involved in the thefts.
The court documents identified the stolen items as a feathered war bonnet belonging to Larson Medicine Horse, a Crow member and former Big Horn County sheriff, and three medicine bundles belonging to Daniel Old Elk, the Crow Sun Chief.
Medicine Horse said in an interview that the war bonnet had been in his family for years and was regularly used in ceremonies until it disappeared from an altar in his house about a decade ago.
"It's the only one that we use to pray with and it's gone," Medicine Horse said. "These are sacred items to us, but probably don't mean anything to other people."
Medicine Horse declined to speculate on who might have stolen the item. Kortlander ran for sheriff against Medicine Horse in 2002 and lost.
Among the other seized items were at least two artifacts that a witness said Kortlander illegally bought and others of unknown origin, the U.S. Attorney's Office said in court documents.
Kortlander "repeatedly stated that he did not know who owned many of the items he was storing in his locked vault, and admitted to purchasing at least one other feathered item, making it clear contraband," Assistant U.S. Attorney Victoria Francis wrote.
Kortlander's attorneys have questioned the credibility of one government witness, a convicted artifact thief and felon named James Brubaker. Brubaker, who was released from prison in 2010, told authorities that he sold Kortlander two eagle feather fans that were seized in the raids, documents show.
Strong said Brubaker's credibility was "extraordinarily suspect."
"He has a huge bone to pick because he's in the business of providing incriminating information so he can get a lesser sentence," Strong said.
U.S. Attorney's Office spokeswoman Jessica Fehr declined to comment on the case.
A hearing in the lawsuit is scheduled for April 13 before U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull.