A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit from a Custer-themed Montana museum director who sought $188 million in damages following a U.S. government investigation into alleged artifact fraud that yielded no charges.
Custer Battlefield Museum director Christopher Kortlander claimed the five-year investigation sullied his reputation, destroyed his business and scuttled his plans to sell Garryowen, a small town he owns within the Crow Indian Reservation near Lt. Col. George Custer’s infamous “last stand” at the Little Bighorn.
But siding with the government, U.S. Federal Claims Judge Marian Blank Horn dismissed Kortlander’s case in a Thursday ruling. She said in part that the seizure of the artifacts during two raids on Garryowen was within the government’s police powers and not an unlawful taking of property.
Held by authorities
Some of that property continues to be held by authorities.
Kortlander did not immediately return a call seeking comment. His attorney, Andrew Miltenberg, said Friday that an appeal was being considered.
“We’re not going quietly into the night,” he said. “This decision is a dangerous addition to the government’s arsenal in its continued assault on individual rights. The government should not be able to seize property for a prosecution, fail to prosecute, and then not return the property.”
Horn’s 21-page dismissal order sharply criticized arguments made by Kortlander in his complaint and pointed out several inconsistencies in his damage calculations that led to the staggering $188 million claim.
She also said claims of criminal conduct on the part of federal agents who pursued the investigation do not fall under her court’s jurisdiction.
“Plaintiffs’ complaint is rambling, disjointed and, in many respects, it is difficult to sort relevant information from colorful background details,” Horn wrote.
Lawsuit thrown out
The dismissal of the high-dollar claims case comes after a different federal judge last year threw out a lawsuit from Kortlander against the two dozen federal agents who carried out the 2005 and 2008 raids.
U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull said in a September ruling that the statute of limitations had passed on the first raid. But he said the search warrant for the 2008 raid had “rock-solid” probable cause because of information suggesting Kortlander was illegally trading eagle feathers.
Kortlander said he took out a second mortgage on his property after a local bank cut off his line of credit following the raids, and that his plans to build a second museum at Garryowen fell apart.
“The BLM and the federal government investigated, harangued, slandered, threatened, and intimidated Kortlander with the full weight of the federal government,” his attorneys claimed in legal filings.
But Horn suggested that the legal arguments used by Kortlander’s attorneys to back his claims were lacking.
The case was defended by attorneys from the U.S. Department of Justice, which said it would not comment.
Still pending is a separate Kortlander claim in federal court in Montana seeking to force the government to return American Indian war bonnets, medicine bundles and other items seized during the raids on Garryowen.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office has said the items seized include eagle feathers and other potentially illegal contraband.
Government attorneys also have said some of the items may have been stolen from members of the Crow Tribe, although there has never been any allegation that they were taken by Kortlander himself.
Kortlander says all the items were lawfully in possession of the museum and should be returned. That case is now in settlement talks.
Kortlander attempted again to sell Garryowen this week at public auction but received no offers.
The 7.7-acre town remains for sale.