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Three charged in fake Indian jewelry scheme

SANTA FE, N.M. — Three New Mexicans were arrested on conspiracy charges stemming from alleged violations of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act – essentially, importing and passing off as Native American-made jewelry that actually was created in the Philippines.

U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez, right, announces the arrest of three New Mexicans charged with conspiring to import and fraudulently sell Filipino-made items as Native American-made jewelry

U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez, right, announces the arrest of three New Mexicans charged with conspiring to import and fraudulently sell Filipino-made items as Native American-made jewelry on Thursday. At left is Chairman of the Indian Arts and Crafts Board Harvey Pratt. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez and Nicholas Chavez, regional law enforcement chief for U.S. Fish and Wildlife, on Thursday announced 16 search warrants executed and the unsealing of an indictment, though copies of both remained unavailable many hours after the documents had been unsealed by U.S. District Court.

The indictment charges Nael Ali, 53, of Albuquerque; Christina Bowen (Sandoval), 41, of Los Lunas; and Mohammed Abed Manasra, 53, of Albuquerque. Ali and Bowen appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge Kirtan Khalsa on Thursday morning and were released. Manasra was arrested in Long Beach, Calif.

Ali owns jewelry stores Gallery 8 and Galeria Azul in Albuquerque’s Old Town, Bowen is an ex-employee and Manasra is the wholesaler of what was held out to be Native American jewelry.

Harvey Pratt, chairman of the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, said the board has been working with Fish and Wildlife to gather complaints and seek documentation to substantiate the claims.

The federal law, intended to protect the livelihood of Indian artisans, eliminate unfair competition and protect consumers, is punishable by up to five years in prison and $250,000 in fines.

“It provides a level playing field for Native American craftspeople,” he said.

Officials said the two-year investigation has international implications because the faux Native jewelry comes from the Philippines.

“The Indian Arts and Crafts Board sees this as a landmark investigation,” Pratt said. “It’s a billion-dollar business.”

The IACA prohibits the offer to sell or the sale of products in a way to falsely suggest that it is Indian-made.

It covers all Indian and Indian-style traditional and contemporary arts and crafts produced after 1935.

Martinez said the case is “not only about law enforcing the law, but also about protecting and preserving the cultural heritage of Native Americans. The cultural heritage of American Indians is a precious national resource and it is critically important that we provide the proper respect to those whose creations are seen by some as simple retail commodities to be exploited for profit.”

A federal agent, left, removes evidence from the Gold House Fine Jewelry store on Old Santa Fe Trail in downtown Santa Fe Wednesday as an officer with New Mexico Game and Fish stands by. At least two other nearby stores and a jewelry store in Albuquerque's Old Town area were also raided in operations led by the federal Fish and Wildlife Service over several hours, but no information was available from state or federal agencies. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

A federal agent, left, removes evidence from the Gold House Fine Jewelry store on Old Santa Fe Trail in downtown Santa Fe Wednesday as an officer with New Mexico Game and Fish stands by. At least two other nearby stores and a jewelry store in Albuquerque’s Old Town area were also raided in operations led by the federal Fish and Wildlife Service over several hours, but no information was available from state or federal agencies. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Eight searches were conducted in Albuquerque, including four at retail and wholesale jewelry businesses.

Search warrants also were executed at three jewelry stores in Gallup, three in Santa Fe, and a jewelry production shop in Zuni. Federal agents also executed a search warrant at a jewelry store in Calistoga, Calif.

Three federal seizure warrants were executed on bank accounts in a Charlotte, N.C., bank and a San Francisco bank. In addition, the Philippines National Bureau of Investigations conducted a series of investigative interviews at two factories in Cebu City, Philippines.

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