Indian grave looter convicted in murder-for-hire plot dies

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photoJack Lee Harelson, left, appears in Jackson County Circuit Court in 2004 in Medford, Ore., with attorney Bob Abel. Authorities said Harelson died Dec. 14 at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, Ore.

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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.

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.

In 2005, Harelson was convicted in a retrial of trying to hire a hit man to kill Lloyd Olds of Brookings, Ore., 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.