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Innocence lost: Home invasion jewelry heist brings big city crime to rural Utah town

DELTA — Millard County Attorney Pat Finlinson said it didn't take long for investigators to realize this case was more than the average home burglary.

"I think the minute it was reported we realized that this was taking away some of the innocence of Delta,” he said.

On Nov. 30, 2017, two men wearing hoods and holding guns burst into Lois Harris' house in Delta, put a pillow case over the 83-year-old woman's head, duct taped her arms and proceeded to clear out her safe filled with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of jewelry and rare gems.

Chris Rowland was recently convicted for his part in a home invasion of an elderly woman's house in Delta and stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of rare gems and jewelry.
Chris Rowland
Millard County Jail

What the Millard County Sheriff's Office would discover over the course of the next year was that the home invasion was far from random. Not only did the two men have a map of Harris' house on their phone, but they somehow already knew the combination to the safe.

The second of the two intruders was convicted in the case last month. Chris Rowland, 38, of Salt Lake City, is scheduled to be sentenced Aug. 18 for aggravated burglary, a first-degree felony, and theft, a second-degree felony.

James Duncombe was convicted earlier this year of aggravated kidnapping and sentenced to up to life in prison for breaking into an elderly Delta woman's home, binding her with duct tape, and stealing rare gems and jewelry in what police say was a very pla
James Duncombe
Millard County Jail

The other man — the man who the Harris family believes was the mastermind behind the scheme, James Ryan Duncombe, 33, of West Valley City — was convicted of kidnapping and aggravated burglary, first-degree felonies, theft, a second-degree felony, and aggravated assault, a third-degree felony. In May, he was sentenced to up to life in the Utah State Prison.

"I'm relieved that both of them will be put in prison. I’ll sleep better at night with both of them there,” the now 85-year-old Harris told the Deseret News.

But the investigation isn't over.

Finlinson said about half a million dollars worth of gold, emeralds and jewels are still missing. And the county's top attorney isn't convinced that Duncombe was the one calling all the shots.

"We believe they are part of a much bigger operation. This is an assignment they were given, that’s our belief,” Finlinson said.

When the men were arrested, Finlinson said authorities found a letter written to one of the two men, giving them instructions about what to do. As of Friday, the sheriff's office had yet to identify who wrote that letter or where it came from.

But in addition to big city crime coming to rural Utah, Finlinson said the case was significant for how a small town police department utilized modern technology to give them the big break they needed in the investigation.

The digital footprint left behind by the two suspects ultimately led to their downfall.

Where's all your money?

Lois Harris, her late husband Rex and the Harris family own the only red beryl mine in the world. They purchased the Ruby Violet Mine in the Wah Wah Mountains of Beaver County in 1976. Red beryl is considered by some to be the rarest gemstone.

Despite the fair amount of prominence and wealth the mine brought to the family, the Harris family remained in Delta and never had to worry about something like home invaders.

"I never worried about anything. I always had my garage door up and the doors opened and felt free," Lois Harris said, though she admitted that her house had an alarm system.

But things changed on that day more than a year and a half ago.

"I get shaken quite a bit,” she said. "I’ve changed. I lock myself in the house all day and all night."

Based on information the family has been given since that day, they believe Duncombe and Rowland went to her house a few days earlier, on a Sunday when she was at church, and scoped it out. But they didn't enter the house for fear of setting off the alarm.

The men returned on Nov. 30, just after 2 p.m. when Harris was home, and knocked on the door.

"So I opened the door and they said they’re from AT&T. And I says, 'I don’t have AT&T and I’m just fine,'" Harris recalled. "Then they wanted to come in and I says, ‘No way. I’m just fine’ and shut the door.'"

But Harris' garage door was open because she was expecting her daughter, Tina Nielsen, to come over.

"They came through the garage. They had hoods over their heads," she said.

Harris is able to chuckle about it now, as she recalled how the hoods didn't do much to conceal their identities.

"When they came in I knew who they were. They didn’t even change their shirts or nothin'," she said.

"Is this a joke? Aren’t you the AT&T guys?" Nielsen said her mother asked the men.

But at the time, it was no laughing matter.

"Each of them had a gun in their hands. They put a hood over my head, taped my arms with duct tape and my feet with duct tape and my mouth,” Harris said.

"I was scared to death. I asked them if they were going to take me out on the desert and leave me or kill me, put me in their trunk and haul me off somewhere. They said, ‘No, we’re not going to do that.'"

One man watched Harris as the other went for the safe. Harris would later tell police that one man was tall, and she described the shorter one as "mean" and "ugly," according to a Millard County sheriff's report.

"I told them, I says, ‘Don’t you ruin my safe because I can open it but it would take (you) a long time.’ And they says, ‘That safe is no problem.’ And they got in it just like that,” Harris recalled.

Sheriff's deputies further noted in their report: "Lois told me they knew where it was because they went straight to it, and they were able to open the safe without her help."

Nielsen told detectives that it was a “very complicated” safe to open and usually takes about 30 minutes, the report states. The safe has a dial and keypad which both need to be utilized to open it.

Harris knew at that point that it wasn't a random burglary.

But what the invaders apparently didn't know, was that the safe did not contain any cash.

"They thought I had a lot of money in my safe and a lot of red beryl. They says, ‘Where’s all your money?’ And I says, ‘I don’t have any money,'" Harris said.

Her husband was on dialysis during the last several years of his life, and she said that ate up a lot of their funds.

Duncombe and Rowland took what was in the safe — which Finlinson said was still $500,000 to $700,000 worth of gems, emeralds and jewelry — as well as a few gemstones on display in the house, and then they left. Harris said jewelry with emeralds that her husband got for her in Colombia are still missing, as well as an 18 karat gold pin with green emeralds in it, and her husband's white gold wedding ring that contains five to six diamonds.

Harris believes the entire ordeal lasted about 25 minutes, but it "seemed like hours."

Before they left, Harris convinced one of the men to rip her duct tape a little, because it was hurting her arms. According to a sheriff's report, she also convinced one of the men to take the pillow case off her head and duct tape that was wrapped around her neck because she couldn't breathe.

They took the pillow case off, but ordered her to look at the floor, the report states. The feisty Harris also had her feet bound with duct tape because she kicked at her intruders, according to the report.

After they left, she managed to grab a cellphone out of her pocket while her arms were still taped together and call her daughter.

"I don’t know how I did it, but I did it, and called Tina and told her to call 911 and get the cops, I’ve been robbed."

Harris was taken to a local hospital where she was treated for hematomas all over her arms and some ripped skin that took several weeks to heal.

When deputies arrived, the investigation began.

Digital footprint

Finlinson said investigators recognized right away it was not a common home burglary.

"We knew that she had been bound with duct tape and the men had come in with guns, masks, and they knew exactly what they were there for, where it was and how to get it. So I think we realized at that point it was a bigger deal than the regular run-of-the-mill residential burglary,” he said.

He said Duncombe and Rowland did a good job of covering their tracks. With the exception of a 3-by-6 centimeter piece of nitrile glove found on the duct tape used to restrain Harris.

That was sent to a crime lab for forensics testing. Finlinson said it took awhile, but the test results eventually matched with Duncombe's DNA.

While that evidence was still being tested, Finlinson said Rowland, believed to be new to the criminal group, got impatient and looked for a third-party person to try and "unload" some of his stolen gems. Rowland found a man who took some of the red beryl to a coin dealer in Salt Lake City.

"Well, this coin dealer knew exactly what he was looking at. As soon as he saw the red beryl he called Tina. He knew the Harrises,” Finlinson said.

Millard investigators went to Salt Lake City to question the man, who Finlinson described as "scared to death" and obviously had no involvement with the initial theft. Without any prompting, he told them everything he knew.

The man arranged to meet again with Rowland. At the arranged meeting place, deputies were waiting and took Rowland into custody. They then served several search warrants on his home where detectives found “a ton of packaging” and “all kinds of stuff with Lois’ name on it," according to Finlinson.

Among the items seized from Rowland's apartment were 21 plastic boxes containing gold embedded in quartz, and a zip-lock bag labeled "very good pearls" that was in Harris' handwriting, the report states.

Investigators also seized Rowland's cellphone. But he refused to give them the pass code to unlock his phone, Finlinson said. The phone was sent to FBI headquarters in Quantico, Virginia.

Finlinson said it took a few months, but authorities at Quantico were able to break into the phone. And that changed the case.

"When we got that back, wow. That told the whole story essentially. He had internet searches for Rex Harris’ obituary, for red beryl, a map of Delta, there’s an internet search for Millard County sheriff’s radio frequencies. It was quite astonishing,” the county attorney said.

One of the items on the phone was a picture of a handwritten letter addressed to "Temp," which is Duncombe's nickname. The letter, which authorities believe may have been written by a person already in the Utah State Prison, appears to be giving Duncombe instructions about the robbery, the report states.

"The old man owns an emerald mine. It’s the only mine in the world that has red emeralds. … In the office under the desk is the safe, 5 million in cash,” the letter states. "There is over 600 lbs of money there."

The author of the letter tells Duncombe he can keep half. The letter also included a map of Harris' neighborhood.

Even before the phone was cracked, detectives had Duncombe on their list of potential suspects. The phone, plus DNA evidence, confirmed it, Finlinson said.

Small town innocence lost

Duncombe and Rowland are members of a prison white supremacist gang, the county attorney said. While Duncombe is "more advanced" in the organization, Finlinson isn't convinced he plotted the entire red beryl theft from the Harris family.

While incarcerated and awaiting trial, a letter that Duncombe wrote to Rowland that was smuggled out of jail by another inmate who was being released, was intercepted by authorities, Finlinson said. The letter essentially told Rowland to take the fall for the crime.

The letter asked Rowland to create a fictional second robber, the sheriff's report states.

"The letter contained instructions to Duncombe's accomplices regarding falsification of testimony and information about witnesses," a search warrant served in November states.

Why the Harris family was targeted was another unanswered question. Tina Harris believes her mother was targeted and the two convicted men "were sent here to get a debt paid."

Both Finlinson and the Harris family have high praise for Millard County sheriff's detective Patrick Bennett for leading the investigation.

"He was real good,” Lois Harris said.

"It wouldn’t have gotten to where it is without him,” added her daughter.

Finlinson described Bennett as a young but "brilliant" and "determined" deputy who went through "line after line" of evidence looking for clues, and listened to hundreds of hours of calls made by inmates at the prison.

The case in the small Utah town was solved with the help of the latest technology used by major police departments. But Finlinson said that's the world we live in today.

"I think the world is a much smaller place now than it used to be. I mean, historically, we’ve had some really good detectives in Millard County. We’ve had some guys who have done tremendous work. But what technology has given us, in terms of connecting us to other agencies and just making it possible to use so many other resources, has just changed the game. I think a small agency like this has access to so much more than it ever has. But on top of that, we just have some phenomenal people here,” he said.

While the murder of Millard County sheriff's deputy Josie Greathouse Fox in 2010 and the fallout from the state and federal court cases had the biggest overall impact on the community, Finlinson said the Harris case, and a recent drive-by shooting in Delta, have made residents realize they aren't as removed from the problems bigger cities have as they used to be.

"They both took away a little bit of the innocence of Millard County. We deal with burglaries regularly, he said.

"But we really haven’t had something like this where it’s this brazen, armed entry, tie the lady up and then take this much stuff. And the obvious inside knowledge. It’s significant in that respect in that it kind of changed the dynamics of this area."