Police: Accused looter of ancient Nevada site plotted murder
GRANTS PASS, Ore. — A man who was fined $2.5 million for looting a Nevada cave filled with ancient Native American remains allegedly planned a murder-for-hire plot against five people, including a sergeant who worked on the original case, officials said Thursday.
Jack Lee Harelson, 62, was lodged in the Jackson County Jail on more than $1 million in bail following his arrest early Thursday at his Grants Pass home, said Lt. Kurt Barthel of the Oregon State Police.
Harelson was charged with solicitation to commit murder and being a felon in possession of a firearm, Barthel said. He was to be arraigned Friday and could be charged with attempted murder as well, he said.
The Jackson County Jail said Harelson did not yet have a court-appointed attorney; it wasn’t immediately clear if he had retained a private attorney.
Barthel said the Oregon State Police learned that Harelson was threatening to kill a number of people — threats the agency took seriously. The OSP decided to use an informant, who approached Harelson and offered to kill the people for him, Barthel said.
Harelson agreed, Barthel said.
“We gave him innumerable opportunities to back out and he was emphatic that he wanted these people murdered,” Barthel said. “He came up with the suggestion of paying us in gems because they’re untraceable. He set the price and paid up front.”
Possible victims included a Josephine County Circuit Court judge, an OSP sergeant who investigated the looting case, Harelson’s ex-wife and two of Harelson’s former business partners, Barthel said. Harelson offered to pay $10,000 in gems for the first murder, Barthel said.
Before Elephant Mountain Cave was looted over several years in the early 1980s, it contained a 10,000-year record of human life in northern Nevada, including artifacts from the Paiute tribe. The site is in the Black Rock Desert, about 140 miles north of Reno.
Harelson has maintained his innocence but acknowledged digging a “test hole” and removing some artifacts.
He and his wife discovered two large baskets, 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, Pat Barker, a state archaeologist for BLM, said at the time.
William Hammett, an Interior Department administrative law judge, handed down the civil penalty on Dec. 6, 2002. It was the fourth largest ever assessed for archaeological theft.
Harelson was also convicted in 1996 in Oregon on charges of possession of stolen property and abuse of a corpse. Those were related to the looting case.
Barthel said federal investigators also served search warrants at two homes, one in Jacksonville, Ore. and another in Nevada, on Thursday.
He said the warrants were related to possible archaeological crimes, but would not elaborate.