Where Are They Now?

Brent Easter ’98 standing beside museum artifacts

As a student at NFA, Brent Easter ’98 was captain of the swim team, a pianist, and a history buff with a quick wit and engaging smile. Today, Easter is a special agent with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) where he investigates international crimes involving cultural property, art and antiquities.

Combine a student with passion and a dream with a teacher’s encouragement and anything is achievable.

Easter is the son of Mark (Bufithis) ‘69, and Bonnie, a teacher at Huntington School in Norwich. Throughout his school years, he had a dream – to be Indiana Jones, searching for lost artifacts and returning them to their rightful owners. He watched every movie –
from Raiders of the Lost Ark to Indiana Jones and
the Temple of Doom; he dressed like the character
every Halloween.

Though it seemed like his dream was fixed, Easter is emphatic that his high school experience helped him develop both a context and path for his goal. “I had a great time at NFA. There were so many options; NFA gave me the opportunity to dabble in lots of stuff to find out what I’d really like to be.”

Though he had never been a competitive swimmer, when he came to NFA Easter joined the swim team, a glimpse into the bold ventures which have become his forte. The measure also exposed him to the influences of opportunities and people for which NFA is noted. Coach Tom Theve ‘68 fostered a family like atmosphere on the team, and Easter flourished. “When you’re with a group of people for four years, for three-four months out of the year, they have a huge impact on you,” he recalls.

Another individual who had a lasting effect on Easter was his 11th grade AP U.S. History teacher, Reggie Levanto ‘68, pictured right.

“Before Miss Levanto, whenever I told anyone of my dream to be Indiana Jones, they’d say ‘you can’t do that.’ I would sit in class and come up with things to do, and she would say, ‘Well, Brent, if anyone could do that, I believe it would be you.’”

More than providing encouragement, though, Levanto pushed Easter to be a critical thinker. Levanto says, “Brent Easter was a dedicated, hardworking student in my third year AP U.S. History class. That describes most kids in any AP class, but Brent was different. His zany sense of humor lightened up any tense discussion and was guaranteed to send me into gales of laughter. Most people took his goal of being the next Indiana Jones as just another joke, but I knew the real Brent and knew he would find his way.”

She challenged Easter to think about how he would execute his seemingly impossible plans and why. “Mrs. Levanto taught me that if I thought things through, I could figure them out,” says Easter. “I thought that if she believed in me, I could believe in myself.”

Easter, who thinks of Levanto as a second mother, reflects, “She taught me that if you think a dream through, you can pursue it.”

Pursuing the dream

After graduating from Norwich Free Academy in 1998, Easter went to Brandeis University. He recalls that he was “so well prepared coming out of NFA, there was no real transition to college.” He joined the Brandeis swim team, where he met his future wife.

Having taken time to think his dream through, as Mrs. Levanto had recommended, he decided to become an educator or work for the federal government. He began his studies at Brandeis to become an archaeology or anthropology professor – much like the fictional Dr. Jones. Then he came across an article about the work of U.S. Customs Agents. The article changed his life – he had found his “how.”

Easter applied to become a Customs Agent, a process that took three years to complete. While his application was in process, he took a job with the U.S. Border Patrol in 2002. As it was the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack, he wanted to begin work in service of the country as soon as possible.

It was a time of transition in agency organization; the Department of Homeland Security was established in November 2002, and, under its umbrella, the U.S. Customs Service was replaced by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to target smuggling and trafficking of goods and people.

Easter joined ICE in 2004 as a special agent based in New York, initially investigating financial crimes and money laundering. Through persistence, he discovered who among his colleagues was focused on cultural property work. At that time only a few agents were engaged in this work part-time. Easter set his sights on using his anthropology and archeology background and helped during his off hours until he was finally reassigned to work full time on cultural property investigations. He had created his own niche through perseverance and hard work.

Today, these investigations are under the purview of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and its Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities division. Since 2007, HSI is responsible for returning more than 8,000 artifacts to 30 countries around the world.

Hidden Idol

Cultural property is defined as physical items that are part of the cultural heritage of a group or society, including works of art; historic and ancient buildings and their ruins; archaeological sites and artifacts; and sacred items.

HSI investigators track stolen cultural property, uncover false provenance, focus upon identifying smuggled artifacts, determine their value and true ownership, and confiscate and return the items to their countries of origin. Trade in stolen and smuggled cultural property is linked to terrorist groups, and provides a revenue stream to fund their activities.

Easter was the subject of a documentary, released in December 2015, entitled “Hidden Idols,” filmed by fellow Brandeis alumnus and friend Jason Kohn, and produced by ESPN Films FiveThirtyEight productions. The documentary tracks the sale of antiquities, tracing sacred artifacts stolen from a village in India to a store on Madison Avenue in New York City owned by Subhash Kapoor.

Included in the long term investigation known as
Operation Hidden Idol, the inquiry resulted in the downfall of Kapoor, whose smuggling ring robbed antiquities from temples and holy places in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Today, Kapoor is awaiting trial in India, and the stolen antiquities have been returned to their country of origin. During the raid of Kapoor’s gallery, authorities seized business records that revealed a network of looters and smugglers across Asia whose objects had been sold to museums and collectors around the globe.

New York City is a major hub for illicit cultural property trade. In March of this year, Easter was involved in the widely-reported raid of the Nancy Weiner Gallery in New York City in a high-profile crackdown on illicit trade in ancient Asian art during Asia Week. Confiscated were a first century red sandstone Kushan relief valued at $100,000, an eighth century limestone sculpture of Shiva and Parvati valued at $35,000, and a tenth century bronze Buddha from Thailand or Cambodia valued at $850,000.

Easter has gained international recognition for his work, speaking to educational groups about the illicit cultural property trade. In April, he addressed the Protecting Cultural Heritage Initiative at the United Nations. “This is an international problem of great proportion,” he said. His purpose at the United Nations was to raise awareness of the “good guys” to protect cultural heritage from the looting of “the bad guys.” His work, however, has not only strengthened opposition to such activity, but has put him in danger. He has caught the attention of criminals and those who benefit from and are funded by this activity.

On April 29, Easter returned to Norwich Free Academy to speak with students and address the Friends of Slater Memorial Museum. During an afternoon assembly, students filled Slater Auditorium to hear Easter. They were rapt with this man, telling the details of his journey from NFA student to federal agent. They asked deeply thoughtful questions both about his work and his NFA experience. “Take advantage of every opportunity while you are here,” Easter advised them.

Easter feels that there is much more that he can do. One of his major accomplishments thus far will help. He and his associates have created a huge database of stolen antiquities. It will help to identify illicit pathways; identify, seize and repatriate stolen objects; and investigate and prosecute the offenders. Easter will also push forward to connect major organizations and transitional smugglers to other organized crime, and develop successful conspiracy cases against them.

Easter, the father of three, still loves Indiana Jones. Each Halloween he continues to dress in the iconic brown hat and jacket, now joined by his children in matching costumes. He confessed, with a grin that he recently showed Raiders of the Lost Ark to his young son for the first time.