BLANDING, UT (AP).- High above the spiky sandstone spine known as Comb Ridge that snakes for 120 miles through the desert, archaeologist Winston Hurst treads carefully through a cave of ruins.
The sun blazes down, illuminating the ghostly dwellings carved into the alcoves more than a thousand years ago. To a stranger the pre-Columbian pueblo ruins seem breathtakingly intact walls and windows and rooms still standing, storage chambers for corn strewn with thousand-year-old cobs, large stone grinding slabs and brightly colored pottery sherds scattered throughout.
The archaeologist sees only destruction.
Driving to the ridge down a bumpy desert road across a plain dotted with sagebrush, cottonwood and pinon, Hurst points to trashed "pit houses" dating from 500-700 A.D. distinctive mounds in the brush, where looters have dug for the ancient Indian tools, pottery, jewelry and blankets traditionally buried with the dead.
In the cave, more desecration. Centuries-old rock petroglyphs depicting animals and people and tools are daubed with modern graffiti, from "H.E.E." (the Hyde Exploration Expedition of 1892) to "Liz Jones, age 8, 2003."
A few yards away, another, more telling signature: the archeologist's own name, scratched into a rock when he was a 12-year-old boy and scrambling through ruins collecting arrowheads was a way of life.
The name is barely legible, gouged out by local artifact hunters who consider Hurst a turncoat. He shakes his head sadly. "I have been where they are ... they have not been where I am," says Hurst, 62, who as a teen, once stored his prized collection of ancient bones next to his mother's canned peaches.
Growing up, one of Hurst's closest friends was Jim Redd, who went on to become a beloved rural doctor. But their friendship faltered over artifacts. While Redd continued digging and collecting, Hurst became a champion of preservation, passionate about the need to leave pieces of the past in place.
"He couldn't stand my sermonizing and I felt sick every time he showed me his latest collection," Hurst says, though Redd remained his doctor.
Their two worlds collided this summer when 150 federal agents swooped into the region, arresting 26 people at gunpoint and charging them with looting Indian graves and stealing priceless archaeological treasures from public and tribal lands.
Seventeen of those arrested, most of them handcuffed and shackled, were from Blanding, including some of the town's most prominent citizens: Harold Lyman, 78, grandson of the pioneering Mormon family that founded the town. David Lacy, 55, high school math teacher and brother of the county sheriff.
And 60-year-old Jim Redd, along with his wife and adult daughter.
The next day, the doctor drove to a pond on his property and killed himself by carbon monoxide poisoning. Another defendant, from Santa Fe, N.M., shot himself a week later.
The suicides horrified this town of about 4,000 with many bitterly blaming the government. More than a thousand people attended Redd's funeral, even as the mayor denounced the FBI and Bureau of Land Management agents as "storm troopers" and the sheriff called for a formal investigation.
For many, the recriminations and grief masked more complicated questions questions that have dogged the town for decades.
Here, in one of the country's richest archaeological regions where the ruins of ancient pueblos are tucked into towering sandstone cliffs and pottery, arrowheads and Clovis points are scattered above old trails how should the past be protected and preserved? And in a place where "pot-hunting" has been a way of life for more than a century, who, if anyone, owns that past?