BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Settlement talks have broken down between the government and the director of a Custer-themed Montana museum seeking the return of items seized during an artifact fraud investigation that was later dropped, according to court documents.
The two sides have filed legal papers asking U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen to resolve the dispute. Negotiations that began last year and had been overseen by another judge came up short, according to attorneys in the case.
Custer Battlefield Museum director Christopher Kortlander claims the museum he runs in Garryowen legally possessed the 22 war bonnets, medicine bundles and other artifacts that were among items confiscated by federal agents in 2005 and 2008.
The raids came during a five-year investigation into Kortlander's alleged dealings in fraudulent artifacts and eagle feathers in violation of federal law. Although no charges were ever filed, government attorneys have continued to question whether Kortlander and the museum acquired the items legally.
"They spent a lot of money investigating me. They're trying to save face," Kortlander said Monday. "The bottom line is the federal government in this instance is wrong."
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office declined comment.
But federal attorneys said in court documents filed Friday that most of the items the government has not returned have feathers from protected eagles, making them possible contraband. Several of the items were stolen from a member of the Crow tribe, the government claims, although there's been no allegation that Kortlander was involved in the thefts.
The government dropped its investigation into Kortlander in 2009. Most of the items seized during the raids — including 7th Cavalry memorabilia, other American Indian artifacts, firearms and thousands of pages of documents — have since been returned.
Kortlander has struggled for any kind of legal retribution. That includes an unsuccessful tort claim in which he sought $188 million in alleged damages from the dropped investigation. He also went after the federal agents who led the criminal probe, but that lawsuit, too, was dismissed.
Yet the dispute over the confiscated items has lingered. Kortlander insists they rightfully belong to the museum. His attorneys, including from the Mountain States Legal Foundation, a conservative, non-profit firm based in Colorado, charge that "each alternative explanation offered by the United States for its continued possession of the Items has been thoroughly refuted."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Victoria Francis said Christensen should reject Kortlander's attempt to reclaim the artifacts. She wrote that he has not followed up on prior promises to provide documents that would prove his ownership and has offered "confusing and contradictory statements" about where he got the items.
The government's position is that it will return them if Kortlander can show they legally belong to the museum. Two items that contained chicken and macaw feathers were offered for return in 2011, Kortlander has not retrieved them.
He said Monday that he had not picked them up out of principle, and wanted the items returned to the place they were taken from, the museum in Garryowen.
Christensen has ordered that reply briefs be filed in the case by mid-August.