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Montana Museum Demands Return of Its Property

DENVER - A Montana man who has battled the federal government and its lawyers for years and is now represented by a nonprofit, public-interest legal foundation known as a defender of Americans’ right to own and use property on June 21 demanded the return of property taken from him.  Mountain States Legal Foundation (MSLF) entered its appearance as attorney for the Custer Battlefield Museum in its efforts to win the return of private property seized at gun-point by federal agents in 2005 and 2008.  Christopher Kortlander, Executive Director of the Custer Battlefield Museum, which is on his private property near the site of the Battlefield of Little Big Horn in southeastern Montana, argues that the artifacts, many of which were donated to the Museum, lawfully belong to the Museum.  He also operates a business dealing in antiquities.  Although federal officials ended plans to prosecute Kortlander criminally under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act for artifacts they seized from the Museum, they refuse to return several artifacts that contain bald and golden eagle feathers. 

“The government has the burden of proving that neither the museum nor Mr. Kortlander rightfully owns the artifacts or it should have filed civil forfeiture documents years ago,” said William Perry Pendley, MSLF president.  

In 2005 and 2008, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), through the U.S. Department of the Interior Office of Law Enforcement and Security, used two dozen federal agents with guns drawn to execute search warrants at the Museum by surrounding the property, holding employees at gunpoint, and seizing hundreds of items on permanent display at the Museum.

From 2005 through mid-summer 2009, the U.S. Attorney in Montana repeatedly threatened to file criminal charges against Kortlander, which included, at one point, felony charges, if Kortlander did not enter into a plea agreement.  Kortlander refused.  In early August 2009, the U.S. Attorney wrote that, while it would “not be seeking prosecution in this case,” it would be “reviewing [the seized] items [to determine] whether they can be legally possessed by [Mr. Kortlander].”  Twenty artifacts, which include a war bonnet headdress, medicine bundle, and shield, all of which contain golden or bald eagle feathers, have not been returned.

In 2011, Kortlander, on behalf of the museum, filed a motion under Rule 41(g) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure seeking return of the Museum’s property.  After the Montana federal district court issued various orders, in June 2012, it vacated the evidentiary hearing and all discovery deadlines.  In May 2013, it issued a new order setting a briefing schedule for motions of summary judgment.

Mountain States Legal Foundation, created in 1977, is a nonprofit, public-interest legal foundation dedicated to individual liberty, the right to own and use property, limited and ethical government, and the free enterprise system.  Its offices are in suburban Denver. 

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