Indian Cave Looter Loses Appeal Over $25 Million Fine

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An Oregon man has lost a bid to overturn a $2.5 million fine for what federal officials say is the worst case of American Indian cave looting in Nevada history.

A civil penalty handed down to Jack Lee Harelson, 63, of Grants Pass in December 2002 by an Interior Department administrative law judge was upheld on appeal.

Justice Department lawyers plan to seek Harelson's assets, including a house, to settle the penalty - the fourth largest ever assessed for archaeological theft.

Federal officials acknowledge the former securities agent probably will be unable to pay most of the fine because he awaits trial in Oregon on charges of conspiring to kill a judge, a state police investigator and others involved in the looting case.

"We will go after what he has," said Pat Barker, a Bureau of Land Management archaeologist. "But he's in jail and has nowhere near those assets.

Harelson is being held without bail in the Josephine County Jail in Grants Pass awaiting a scheduled June trial in Medford.

"The $2.5 million fine sets a precedent that looting these sites is a serious thing. It's mainly for the deterrent value," Barker said.

The fine was upheld April 5 by the Interior Board of Land Appeals but not announced until this week by the BLM.

Harelson was first convicted in an Oregon court in 1996 on charges stemming from the illegal excavation years earlier of an ancient grave site on the Black Rock Desert, 140 miles north of Reno.

Before it was looted in the early 1980s, Elephant Mountain Cave contained a 10,000-year record of human life in northern Nevada, including that of members of the Paiute tribe.

Harelson was accused of removing the bodies of a girl and boy, baskets and other artifacts, and burying the bodies in his backyard.

More than 2,000 artifacts were later recovered, including 10,000-year-old sandals that possibly were the oldest footwear found on earth, Barker said. The ancient remains and other artifacts were found on Harelson's property in Grants Pass.

"There's no way to reconstruct the history of the site thanks to what he did," Barker said. "It's a loss for everybody."

Harelson has maintained his innocence, but acknowledged digging a "test hole" and removing some artifacts.

By the time Harelson was arrested in 1995, the statute of limitations on the illegal excavation had expired. Harelson was tried and convicted under Oregon law for possessing stolen property and abusing a corpse. He was sentenced to 18 months in jail and fined $20,000.

The Oregon Supreme Court later overturned the corpse abuse conviction after determining the statute of limitations for it had expired, too.

Last January Harelson was arrested at his home on suspicion of planning a murder-for-hire plot against five people, including an Oregon state police sergeant who worked on the looting case.

Harelson was charged with solicitation to commit murder after allegedly striking a deal with an undercover agent posing as a hit man.