GRANTS PASS, Ore. – A former insurance agent and amateur archaeologist convicted of looting ancient Indian graves in the Nevada desert and later offering $10,000 in opals for a hit man to kill a former business partner has died in prison.
The Department of Corrections confirmed Thursday that Jack Lee Harelson, 72, of Grants Pass, died Dec. 14 in the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem. The agency said he died of natural causes in the prison infirmary. His death was first reported by the Grants Pass Daily Courier.
When he was arrested in 1995, authorities said they found the headless mummified remains of two children wrapped in garbage bags and buried unceremoniously in Harelson's garden.
A U.S. Department of Interior archaeologist said at the time that Harelson's unauthorized excavations of the Elephant Mountain Cave in Nevada's Black Rock Desert in the early 1980s destroyed the historical record of a site that was inhabited by ancestors of the Paiute Tribe for 5,000 years. Among some 2,000 artifacts were the hand-woven baskets the children were buried in, a necklace of unborn antelope hooves and an abalone shell, a cordage net for catching rabbits, and moccasins.
By the time the artifacts were found, the statute of limitations had run out on any federal criminal charges, but the U.S. Department of Interior sued Harelson and won a $2.5 million civil judgment against him.
Acknowledging in an interview with The Associated Press at the time that he could have done a better job excavating the site, Harelson maintained that amateurs like himself tramping the desert were responsible for many significant archaeological finds. The Nevada State Museum confirmed he was responsible for finding the bones of a prehistoric camel in their collection.
But the abuse of the remains of the children outraged the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, which said the remains could not be reburied without the skulls.
State police later recovered two skulls in a separate investigation, and said they believed they came from the remains found in Harelson's garden.
Harelson served 30 days in jail rather than perform community service for his convictions.
In 2005, Harelson was convicted in a retrial of trying to hire a hit man to kill Lloyd Olds of Brookings, a partner in an opal mine whom Harelson blamed for his grave-robbing conviction. Key evidence came from tape recordings of conversations with an informant who told Harelson he knew a hitman. According to testimony, Harelson gave the informant a jar full of opals valued at $10,000 to pay for the slayings.
Harelson's defense attorney argued he was the victim of entrapment by police, the hit man never existed, and the tape recordings of his murder plans represented the musings of a lonely old man who never had any intention of going ahead with them.
Harelson was acquitted of charges he also wanted a judge, two state police officers, and another partner in the opal mine to be killed.
Information from: Daily Courier, http://www.thedailycourier.com