A South Lake Tahoe man was sentenced Tuesday to one year and one day in prison and ordered to pay $113,000 in restitution after illegally digging at prehistoric Native American archeological sites on public lands near Lake Tahoe in Alpine and El Dorado counties.
Timothy Brian Harrison, 50, pleaded guilty to two counts of excavation and removal of archeological resources from public lands, as well as one misdemeanor count of unlawful possession of methamphetamine, according to a news release from the office of McGregor W. Scott, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office says Harrison collected tens of thousands of ancient artifacts from multiple archeological sites, two of which that were described as “very significant” were “virtually destroyed,” leading to the “irreplaceable loss of unique historical information.”
In September 2012, rock climbers told the Alpine County Sheriff’s Office they had seen extensive digging and resource damage at a Native American archeological site 50 meters west of a corral off Highway 89 in the Hope Valley Area of Alpine County, according to court documents. The case was referred to the U.S. Forest Service.
The climbers, who were interviewed a few days later, told Special Agent Peter Jordan they had observed one man, sometimes two, digging on multiple days during a period from mid-June to the beginning of September, according to court documents. One climber identified Harrison as one of the men seen digging.
The climbers also reported seeing a silver Toyota truck with a large black overhead lumber rack, which was later identified as Harrison’s vehicle, court documents show.
Harrison was detained a few days later by a California game warden after they saw Harrison digging near the corral site, court documents said. The warden seized several stone tool artifacts from Harrison that were later determined to be more than 100 years old.
During an interview, Harrison admitted to the unauthorized digging and removal of stone tools at the site and surrendered more than 1,000 partial and whole spear points, arrowheads and stone flakes, court documents said. Archaeologists determined some of the artifacts to be thousands of years old and must have come from more than just the corral site.
Harrison denied removing any artifacts from any other locations except for a few pieces he had picked up “randomly down the river” near the West Fork of Carson River, court documents said. He did admit to hiking and exploring in other areas on national forest lands in Alpine and El Dorado counties but denied both digging or taking any other items.
Harrison’s illegal digging at the corral site caused damages estimated at more than $545,000.
In March 2013, Jordan saw Harrison’s pickup truck on Poor Boy Road in Alpine County in the vicinity of Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, court documents said.
Jordan waited near the area and observed Harrison and his dog return to the truck carrying a rake and shovel, court documents said. Harrison, wearing dirty clothing, walked back to the to the timberline on the east side of the road, emerging 30 minutes later with a large backpack that appeared to be full.
After Harrison got in his truck and drove off, Jordan found disturbed ground with indications of digging near the vicinity where Harrison had been parked, as well as a shoe print near the dig site, court documents said.
Covert surveillance cameras were later installed in the area, and in April 2013, the court approved for a GPS tracker to be placed on Harrison’s truck, court documents said. One of the photographs taken by the covert cameras showed two dark silhouettes in Harrison’s truck as it entered the dig site area, while other photos captured a yellow Labrador retriever and a second man.
A search warrant was issued and a search of Harrison’s house was conducted in May 2013, where investigators found boots matching the tread from shoe prints found at the dig site, court documents said.
Harrison admitted to special agents he had been collecting artifacts for eight to 10 years and seriously collecting on federal, state and private lands for five to six years, court documents said. He maintained that he had only been surface collecting and not doing any digging since being caught at the corral site in 2012.
However, Harrison later admitted to digging at multiple sites in the Hope Valley, court documents said. He also told investigators he began digging in areas near Poor Boy Road in the winter of 2013.
Harrison also circled multiple locations on a map of areas in the Hope Valley and south of Markleeville where he had conducted archeological excavations, some of which law enforcement did not already know about, court documents said.
During the search of Harrison’s home, law enforcement agents also found a beam scale and toolbox containing six packages of a methamphetamine mixture, weighing in at a little more than 74 grams total, which Harrison claimed was for personal use, court documents said. Agents also discovered 130 $100 bills under a Jacuzzi tub, which Harrison agreed to apply to restitution for what he had done.
“Representatives of the Washoe Tribe of California and Nevada spoke about the impact on the tribe from this destruction of sites,” the District Attorney’s Office said. “They explained that Harrison’s digging erased their past and interfered with the tribe’s ability to teach younger generations about their history and culture.”
Harrison, who is not currently in custody, was ordered to surrender himself by April 23 to begin his sentence.