RENO, Nev. – A Nevada man faces more than a year in prison for desecrating property that’s culturally significant to American Indians in California and Nevada.
Timothy Brian Harrison, 50, of South Lake Tahoe pleaded guilty to two counts of illegally excavating and removing archaeological resources from public land and one count of possession of methamphetamine.
According to court filings, Harrison stole tens of thousands of artifacts, such as arrowheads, and destroyed sites people from the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California visit with children to learn about history.
“He went in and pretty much dug up everything,” said Darrel Cruz, director of the tribe’s historic preservation office. “He has taken away those places that are important to our cultural identity.”
In a sentencing memorandum, Cruz said the Washoe people have been in the region for thousands of years. He described taking children to visit sites to see grinding stones where people prepared food and stone remnants where people flaked tools.
He said the children form connections with history by touching, feeling and experiencing the items in the context of the landscape while learning to treat sites with respect.
“I remember watching my grandmother pound acorns when I was a child,” Cruz said in the memorandum. “Now the younger generation doesn’t do these things. Our children need to see these places and objects.”
U.S. District Court Judge John Mendez sentenced Harrison to one year and one day in prison and ordered him to pay $113,000 in restitution. Prosecutors had recommended 24 months.
In a plea agreement for the case, Harrison admitted to excavating, removing and damaging archaeological resources.
The indictment states that on Sept. 4, 2012, rock climbers contacted the Alpine County Sheriff’s Office to report extensive digging and damage at the site. They reported seeing a truck registered to Harrison and one or two men, including one identified as Harrison, digging in the area.
A damage assessment from U.S. Forest Service archaeologists described a trench 20 feet long, 40 inches wide and 4 feet deep.
In March 2013, according to the indictment, a Forest Service special agent saw Harrison near an archaeological site with a rake and shovel while wearing dirty clothes. The agent found evidence of digging and preserved a boot print.
Agents installed cameras in the area and received a court order to place a GPS device on Harrison’s truck, the indictment states. The cameras and GPS device captured Harrison’s truck returning to the site.
During an interview with special agents, Harrison admitted to collecting and selling artifacts thought to be 8,000 to 10,000 years old.
Site considered ‘unusually valuable’
Bureau of Land Management archaeologist Rachel Crews, who inspected the site, said it was considered “unusually valuable” based on its potential to yield important information about American Indian life in the area before settlers arrived and forced them off the land.
Crews told the court that Harrison “effectively destroyed” the site and with it, “destroyed a part of the deep history of the Washoe Tribe, and robbed tribal members of their opportunity to learn about their ancestors at a unique and informative site.”
Crews said even if stolen artifacts are recovered, their value can be diminished when removed from their context on the landscape.
“When someone steals pieces of the puzzle, it gets harder and harder to put together a clear picture of the past,” she said. “No amount of money can restore the lost information, the opportunities for scientific discovery, or the ancestral family history of tribal people at this site.”
Although much of the damage is irreversible, Cruz said he was glad authorities pursued and prosecuted the case.
He said he thinks Washoe people speaking out and attending the proceedings contributed to the judge’s appreciation of the seriousness of the crimes.
“I think us being there was very important for the judge to see, there are real people affected by what he did,” Cruz said. “In our country, in the Washoe country, this stuff has been going on for a long time. Except this time, we had several agencies take it seriously.”
Harrison’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment.
Harrison was ordered to self-surrender on April 23.
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