Nevada Indian cave looter hit with $2.5 million civil penalty
RENO — An Oregon man was fined $2.5 million for his role in what federal officials are calling the worst case of American Indian cave looting in Nevada history.
William Hammett, an administrative law judge at the U.S. Interior Department, handed down the civil penalty to Jack Lee Harelson, 62, of Grants Pass.
The penalty, the fourth largest ever assessed for archaeological theft, was imposed Dec. 6 but not announced until late Thursday by Bureau of Land Management officials.
Harelson was convicted in an Oregon court in 1996 of possession of stolen property and abuse of a corpse — charges stemming from the illegal excavation of an ancient site on the Black Rock Desert, 140 miles north of Reno.
In looting Elephant Mountain Cave, Harelson destroyed what could have been one of the five most important archaeological cave sites in the Great Basin, a vast area covering most of Nevada and Utah, BLM officials said.
Before it was looted over several years in the early 1980s, the cave contained a 10,000-year record of human life in northern Nevada, including that of members of the Paiute tribe.
“The desecration and loss of this site to all Americans is staggering,” said Bob Abbey, Nevada state director of the BLM. “While we are pleased the judge ruled completely in BLM’s favor, money can’t bring back what was lost.”
Harelson maintained his innocence and laughed when asked whether he would pay the penalty. His license as a securities agent was revoked after his conviction and he has not held a steady job since, he said.
“I’m on Social Security and crippled, yeah, right,” he said. “The federal government knew that I had nothing going in. They needed to slap someone.
“What’s my reaction? I guess I have no reaction. You deal with the government and there are lies and that’s what you have to deal with,” he said.
BLM officials said there was overwhelming evidence that Harelson dug through and discarded all but the most valuable artifacts in the cave.
He and his wife discovered two large baskets in the cave, one with the body of a boy and the other with the body of a girl, court records show.
They removed the bodies, baskets and other artifacts, and buried the bodies in their backyard.
More than 2,000 artifacts were later recovered, including 10,000-year-old sandals that possibly were the oldest footwear found on earth, said Pat Barker, a state archaeologist for BLM.
“It’s a devastating blow losing this information,” Barker said. “This is outrageous. It’s the worst case of looting we know of in Nevada and one of the worst in the West.
Archaeological artifacts are useful only if they are recorded in place, he said.
“The civil penalty is a strong message for other people not to do this stuff,” Barker said.
In his ruling, Hammett noted the insult to American Indians from the desecration of burials at the cave far outweighs the commercial value of the artifacts, leading him to use the archaeological value rather than the commercial value to determine the civil penalty.
Harelson acknowledged digging a “test hole” and removing some artifacts, but claimed he did it only to interest Nevada archaeologists in the site.
“Never once did I say those artifacts I took from the cave belonged to me,” Harelson said. “They were test items. I was trying to prove a point that the cave was worthy of a controlled dig by the Nevada State Museum.”
The statute of limitations on the excavation had expired by the time of Harelson’s arrest in 1995. He was tried and convicted under Oregon law after the ancient remains and stolen property were found there in the mid-1990s.
He was sentenced to 18 months in jail and fined $20,000.
The Oregon Supreme Court later overturned his conviction on abuse of a corpse charges after determining the statute of limitations had expired.
The U.S Justice Department will determine whether Harelson has assets to pay all or part of the $2.5 million civil penalty, officials said.