A local retailer agreed to plead guilty in federal court to selling fake Native American jewelry out of his shop in historic Old Town Scottsdale.
Waleed Sarrar, who owns the Scottsdale Jewels shop on Brown Avenue north of Main Street in downtown Scottsdale, pleaded to one count of conspiracy to misrepresent Indian-produced goods and to commit wire fraud.
Scottsdale Jewels is still in operation.
Sarrar was one of several Valley jewelry retailers named in a February indictment which also listed charges against individuals in San Antonio and the Philippines.
The indictment described an alleged forgery ring importing fake Native American Jewelry from the Philippines to be sold in the U.S.
The federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act, or IACA, prohibits the sale or marketing of goods falsely labeled as the product of a Native American craftsman or tribe.
Sarrar originally faced 29 counts in the indictment, including charges of mail fraud, conspiracy, wire fraud and misrepresenting Indian-produced goods for allegedly selling counterfeit Navajo jewelry to an undercover agent.
Sarrar’s attorney Lee David Stein declined to comment for this story.
The indictment alleged Richard Dennis Nisbet and his daughter Laura Marye Lott ran the counterfeit operation through various Phoenix-based businesses, including Last Chance Jewelers, Dick Denni Designs, LMN Jewelers LLC and Laura Marye Designs.
The indictment further alleged the duo coordinated with manufacturing operations in the Philippines to create knock-offs of prominent Native American artisans and labeled other jewelry using the fictitious artist’s name.
Scottsdale Jewels is one of several shops in Arizona and Texas allegedly selling jewelry purchased from Nisbet and Lott.
The indictment references emails sent between Nisbet and others directing the jewelers to mimic popular Navajo styles, including those created by well-known Navajo artist Will Vandever.
“Wv. stands for will vandever. Like the picture,” Nisbet is alleged to have written to a jeweler in the Philippines, according to the indictment.
According to Sarrar’s plea agreement, in 2018 Sarrar solicited from Nisbet counterfeit versions of a pendant and bolo tie designed by Native American artist Michael Perry.
Lott and San Antonio retailer Christian Coxon also pled guilty in January to charges related to their involvement in the ring, according to the Department of Justice.
According to the Department of Justice, Sarrar, Lott and Coxon confirmed many allegations made in the indictment as part of their plea agreements.
“According to information the defendants admitted to as part of their pleas, from Jan. 2016 through Feb. 2019, they conspired with each other, and others, to design jewelry in the Native-American Indian-style and manufacture the jewelry in the Philippines with Filipino labor,” read a department release.
According to Sarrar’s plea agreement, he admitted to purchasing counterfeit jewelry from Lott.
Sarrar also allegedly sold five pieces of counterfeit jewelry for $917 to an undercover agent in 2018.
The guilty plea was welcome news to Alston and Deborah Neal, owners of Territorial Indian Arts & Antiques, the oldest gallery of American Indian art on Main Street in downtown Scottsdale.
“We’re happy to see this and we’d like to see more,” Deborah Neal said of the case.
Alston Neal said counterfeiting of Native American goods has been rampant for years with little attention from law enforcement.
“Where for decades we never saw law enforcement, law enforcement is now starting to show up…everyone is happy to see this coming down, because it’s been a long time coming,” Alston Neal said.
The Sarrar case appears to be part of a more concerted effort in recent years by federal law enforcement to enforce the IACA.
In Aug. 2018, U.S. District Judge Judith C. Herrera sentenced Nael Ali to six months in prison after Ali pled guilty to two felony charges, citing he violated IACA.
According to a federal indictment, Ali owned galleries in Albuquerque and Scottsdale and allegedly purchased $85,369 worth of Native American-style jewelry manufactured in the Philippines.
Despite the recent crackdown, the Neals were skeptical the recent pleas will have a significant effect on bad actors in their industry, arguing the backers of such schemes have enough money to withstand the large fines and losses associated with these cases.
Sarrar faces a maximum of five years in prison and $250,000 fine, though he could receive lesser penalties as a result of his cooperation with law enforcement, according to the plea deal.
Sarrar is scheduled to be sentenced on March 30.
The cases against Sarrar and others allegedly involved in the counterfeiting ring were the result of a joint investigation by several different federal agencies, including the Office of Law Enforcement for the Southwest Region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Phoenix Field Office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations.
The U.S. Department of the Interior Indian Arts and Crafts Board and Office of Law Enforcement and Security, the Arizona Game and Fish Department, the U.S. Forest Service Law Enforcement and Investigations, and the Texas Game Wardens also assisted in the case.