Note: A copy of the indictment can be found here.
PHOENIX – On Feb. 26, a federal grand jury returned a 38-count indictment against U.S. and Philippines-based conspirators for operating a fraudulent scheme to import Native American-style jewelry and sell it to retail stores and individuals across the southwest United States as authentic jewelry made by Native Americans. The conspirators allegedly perpetrated this international fraud and money laundering scheme for several years in violation of federal laws, including the Indian Arts and Crafts Act (IACA).
Assistant Attorney General Brian A. Benczkowski of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, First Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth A. Strange of the District of Arizona, Assistant Director Edward Grace of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) Office of Law Enforcement and Special Agent in Charge A. Scott Brown of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Phoenix Field Office made the announcement.
According to the indictment, the defendants and their conspirators used various jewelry businesses – including Last Chance Jewelers and LMN Jewelers – to design and manufacture jewelry in the Native-American style at factories in the Philippines where Filipino jewelry-makers made all of the jewelry. The conspirators allegedly took several measures to ensure that the jewelry resembled authentic Native American-made jewelry, including copying jewelry designs from genuine Native American artists, using traditional Native American motifs and symbols in the jewelry, and stamping the jewelry with the initials of alleged Native American artists. According to the indictment, the jewelry was then imported into the United States by FedEx, or smuggled into the United States by hand or through the Philippines Postal System, to end destinations in Arizona. From there, it was allegedly advertised and sold to the general public as authentic jewelry made by Native Americans, at jewelry and crafts stores that purported to specialize in Native American pieces. The indictment alleges that none of these jewelry items were indelibly marked with the country of origin as required by customs law.
The indictment alleges that Richard Dennis Nisbet, 70, and his daughter Laura Marye Lott, 31, both of Peoria, Arizona, conspired with others to design and manufacture the Native American-style jewelry in the Philippines and import the jewelry to the United States. Lott then allegedly delivered the jewelry to retail stores in Arizona, Texas, and other states and collected payments. Christian Coxon, 45, of Selma, Texas, was the owner and operator of Turquoise River Trading Company, a jewelry store in San Antonio, Texas that claimed to specialize in Indian-made jewelry. Waleed Sarrar, 43, of Chandler, Arizona, owned and operated Scottsdale Jewels LLC, a jewelry store in Scottsdale, Arizona that advertised as selling authentic Indian-made jewelry. According to the indictment, Coxon and Sarrar conspired with Nisbet, Lott, and others to pass off imitation jewelry manufactured abroad to the public as authentic Native American-made jewelry. Additionally, Mency Remedio, a factory manager in the Philippines, and Orlando Abellanosa and Ariel Adlawan Canedo, both of whom worked as jewelry smiths in the Philippines for the operation, were also charged with participating in the multi-year fraud and money laundering schemes.
The IACA prohibits the offer or display for sale, or the sale of any good in a manner that falsely suggests that it is Indian produced, an Indian product, or the product of a particular Indian and Indian tribe. The law is designed to prevent products from being marketed as “Indian made,” when the products are not, in fact, made by Indians. It covers all Indian and Indian-style traditional and contemporary arts and crafts produced after 1935, and broadly applies to the marketing of arts and crafts by any person in the United States. The IACA provides critical economic benefits for Native American cultural development by recognizing that forgery and fraudulent arts and crafts diminish the livelihood of Native American artists and craftspeople by lowering both market prices and standards.
An indictment is merely an allegation. All defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.
This case was investigated by the FWS Office of Law Enforcement for the Southwest Region and HSI Phoenix, with assistance from the Arizona Game and Fish Department, the Bureau of Land Management Office of Law Enforcement and Security and the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, the U.S. Forest Service Law Enforcement and Investigations and the Texas Game Wardens. Trial Attorney Mona Sahaf of the Criminal Division’s Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section and Assistant U.S. Attorneys Peter Sexton and Mark Wenker of the District of Arizona are prosecuting the case.