"Curse of T. rex"

PBS Airdate: February 25, 1997
Go to the companion Web site

______: Tonight, on NOVA. Crazy for dinosaurs. When the best T. rex ever is found, everyone wants a piece of the action. The Feds. The ranchers.

______: He's worth a whole lot more than $5,000.

______: The lawyers.

______: Is this a victory cigar?

______: You got that right.

______: The scientists.

______: Our science is going to be close to doomed.

______: It's a showdown in the badlands. Curse of T. rex.

______: NOVA is funded by Merck. Merck. Pharmaceutical research. Dedicated to preventing disease and improving health. Merck. Committed to bringing out the best in medicine. And by Prudential.

______: Prudential. Insurance, health care, real estate, and financial services for more than a century bringing strength and stability to America's families.

______: The Corporation for Public Broadcasting. And viewers like you.

NARRATOR: For those who hope to reconstruct the story of life on earth, to reveal the substance of creatures long vanished and the origin of those that live today, fossil bones are vital clues. They're unlike any other objects of scientific study. So rare, so irreplaceable, and so compelling that they're often viewed as treasure. And treasure can be a curse as well as a blessing. On May 14, 1992, the town of Hill City, South Dakota, woke up to a raid. Thirty-five Federal agents, police, and National Guardsmen surrounded a warehouse owned by Peter Larson.

PETER LARSON: I just couldn't believe what was happening. I walked outside. There was FBI agents, sheriff's officers running around with guns, and a police line all around the building. It was just—It was like a dream.

NARRATOR: Word spread that they were looking for a vicious predator named Sue. But no shots were fired. And in the end, Sue went peacefully, all ten tons. The finest specimen of Tyrannosaurus rex ever found. T. rex, the undisputed king of the dinosaurs, among the largest carnivores ever to walk the earth, is still creating an uproar 65 million years after drawing its last living breath. This T. rex, half its bones still encased in rock, is at the center of a government crackdown on modern-day prospectors, who hunt for gold in the form of fossil bones. The prime target for the better part of a decade has been the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research. Over the past twenty years, Peter Larson, his brother Neal, and partner Bob Farrar, have built a thriving commercial fossil business. Yearly sales in the neighborhood of a million dollars make them the biggest players in the small world of the fossil trade. Their small museum in Hill City is a popular stop on the summer tourist trail. But their real business is collecting, preparing, and selling fossils to museums, universities, and private collectors around the world. They're known in the trade as dealers in everything from inexpensive fossil invertebrates to dinosaurs that sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. The Larson brothers have been digging fossils since they were children growing up on the family ranch in South Dakota. But as the raid continued, they suddenly found themselves on dangerous ground.

PETER LARSON: They came through here and they—Well, for instance, they were going through our files. They came looking for photographs. This was all full of photographs. They'd pull open a drawer and they'd start rifling through and looking. "Do I want this document or do I want that document?"

NEAL LARSON: So, I tried to get their badge numbers and their names, and the one person in charge said, "You can have my badge number and my name. You do not get anybody else's name. You will take no photographs. You will take no notes." He said, "This is a serious thing." He said, "If you cooperate, everything will go fine. If you do not cooperate, we will throw you to the ground and arrest you." So we cooperated.

PETER LARSON: When the trucks drove away, people started singing the national anthem, and everybody was just crying. It was just the saddest thing that I've ever experienced. It was like a funeral. It was like Sue had died for the second time.

NARRATOR: Their troubles began during the summer of 1990, when they became acquainted with the owner of a ranch on the Cheyenne River Sioux reservation in South Dakota. Maurice Williams invited the Black Hills crew to look around on his property.

MAURICE WILLIAMS: I told him, I said, "You can go over there and look around sometime if you want to." And that's all I remember ever saying to him as an invitation to come.

PETER LARSON: I told him at that time that we'd be—If we did find something important, we'd be happy to pay him. We couldn't pay him much, but we would be happy to pay him for those fossils. He said no, that wouldn't be necessary.

NARRATOR: A few days later, Sue Hendrickson went exploring on the Williams ranch. At the bottom of a cliff, she discovered some interesting bone fragments, which she took back to Larson.

PETER LARSON: I'd never seen the inside of a T. rex vertebrae before, but I knew that was what I was looking at the minute I saw these things. I immediately threw down my tools and said, "Let's go!"

NARRATOR: At the cliff face, the Larson brothers saw what appeared to be the find of a lifetime: a Tyrannosaurus rex embedded in the rock.

MAURICE WILLIAMS: Sue Hendrickson called me up one evening and said that they had found this large Tyrannosaurus rex fossil in a cliff up here. "Isn't it exciting?" she said. And I said, "Well, I guess so."

NARRATOR: For the Black Hills crew, it would be hard to imagine anything more exciting. A Tyrannosaurus rex is the ultimate prize for a fossil hunter. It's been that way since the first one was discovered at the turn of the century. Christened "The Tyrant Lizard King," the forty-five-foot monster with eight-inch teeth became a huge favorite with the public and a source of continuing fascination for science. But for all its notoriety, T. rex is known from only a handful of skeletons, none more than 75% complete. So, the discovery on Maurice Williams' ranch was incredible. More than 90% complete, it was also the largest T. rex ever found, with a beautifully preserved skull. They named it Sue, after its discoverer and documented the excavation on home video. Fully prepared, this T. rex could be worth millions of dollars. But Larson told Maurice Williams they planned to make it the centerpiece of their own museum in Hill City.

MAURICE WILLIAMS: You are going to mount him in Hill City?


MAURICE WILLIAMS: Good. And under that, you'll say, Pete will say, "Stolen from Maurice Williams"?

NARRATOR: Larson wrote Williams a check for $5,000 and finished the excavation. Back at their place in Hill City, as they began chipping away at the rock matrix, they realized that Sue was even more impressive than they'd first thought. Unusual details such as bite wounds on the skull. A healed broken leg. And one of only two known T. rex upper arm bones added to its scientific interest. Sue clearly ranked among the finest dinosaurs ever found. So when the story of the discovery appeared in the newspaper, a number of parties took more than a casual interest. The tribal council of the Cheyenne River Sioux checked the status of Maurice Williams' ranch. They discovered that, although he owns the property, years ago, he put it in trust with the Federal government to make it exempt from property taxes, a common practice on reservation land. The tribe contended that no one could buy any part of his land, including fossils, without government permission. The tribal chairman claimed that Larson admitted knowing as much, soon after the discovery.

GREGG BOURLAND: One of the first things that Mr. Larson said, "I knew I was on a reservation. I knew I should get permission. I knew a lot of things that I should have done, but I didn't do them because we found this world's greatest T. rex. We came, we saw, we dug, and we ran."

PETER LARSON: There were no permits to get. The tribe did not have a permitting system. Since this is private land, there is no permitting system from the Federal government that was necessary to get. We had the necessary permission of the landowner. We did not need permission from the tribe.

NARRATOR: And did he ever admit guilt, as Gregg Bourland claimed?

PETER LARSON: No, I never made that statement.

NARRATOR: But the tribal council disagreed and drafted a resolution asking the U.S. Attorney to help them get the dinosaur back.

GREGG BOURLAND: Quite simply put, Sue belongs to the people of this reservation. Mr. Williams entered into a bogus or an illegal deal with the Institute, a deal that is currently under Federal investigation. Mr. Williams and the Institute thereby both forfeit any rights to the T. rex.

NARRATOR: Meanwhile, Maurice Williams asked the U.S. Attorney to help him get the dinosaur back, denying that he never sold it to Larson in the first place.

MAURICE WILLIAMS: Well, I'm assuming he got that idea from that check that he wrote. But there was no mention of any sale between he and I of anything.

PETER LARSON: We agreed on a price of $5,000 for the fossil and the rights thereof, and we wrote him a check, and he took the check and cashed it.

MAURICE WILLIAMS: I'm assuming it's worth a whole lot more than $5,000.

PETER LARSON: It's something that turns out to be so wonderful that everybody wants it.

NARRATOR: So, almost two years later, the U.S. Attorney for South Dakota ordered the dinosaur seized and began a criminal investigation of the Black Hills Institute.

PETER LARSON: I'm going to fight this thing until fifty years after I'm dead, if I have to. The government's wrong. The government is not correct in what they've done here.

NARRATOR: Fossil hunting, and fossil wars, have been part of the North American experience ever since white settlers began carving up the land west of the Mississippi in the 19th century. Discoveries of fantastic skeletons created a sensation. The big eastern museums hired fossil hunters to stake claims and dig up the bones. Competition was intense, and not always friendly. Dig sites were often armed camps. Back east, museums prepared the specimens for display. But eventually, the dinosaur halls were full. Collection efforts were scaled back, and then virtually wiped out by the Great Depression. But in the 1970s, dinosaurs came roaring back. With new discoveries, their image changed from lumbering reptiles to active, possibly warm-blooded animals. Now, they're an industry in themselves, and an early interest in science for children around the world. People everywhere want dinosaurs. But robotic theme parks, like this one near Tokyo, aren't enough to satisfy true dinosaur lovers. Unfortunately, fossils of the real thing are harder to come by. Dinosaurs lived all over the world, from the Arctic to the South Pole, but good-quality skeletons are extremely rare. None have been found in Japan, and few in Europe. But they are found in North America. So, museum buyers from around the world join the crowd at huge fossil shows each year in Tucson and Denver.

DEALER: Want me to spin it for you? Perfect sutures!

NARRATOR: Most countries have strict laws governing the export of fossils. But America is wide open, and the foreign buyers know it.

THEO HENSKENS: In America there are not so very much rules. It's a free country and you can buy here what you want.

NARRATOR: The Black Hills Institute is just one of many dealers selling North American fossils to a broad range of customers. At the low end of the market are buyers from educational supply houses, schools, and gift shops, looking for common, inexpensive fossils. Further up the scale are national retailers and high-end fossil shops catering to private collectors and decorators. And at the top end are international museum buyers looking for impressive and rare display pieces. But not everyone is happy about the booming fossil trade, least of all, professional paleontologists like Robert Hunt, of the University of Nebraska.

ROBERT HUNT: I become saddened by what I see at many commercial fossil shows, particularly the shows in Tucson and in Denver. You do see vertebrate fossils that are scientifically significant, fossils that will probably be only found in maybe a century, on display and for sale to the highest bidder. Many times, those fossils, when they're sold at those meetings, are never seen again. And we all know that there's a tremendous loss of information.

NARRATOR: A big concern among paleontologists like Jack Horner is that commercial collectors don't always take the time to preserve the context of the fossils they find, the small clues that give fossils meaning.

JACK HORNER: The kinds of data that we are now collecting to see what dinosaurs were like as living animals and what their paleoecology was like and their environments were like, includes collecting not just dinosaurs, but everything else. And if people just go in and, you know, are just taking the pretty stuff out, that, that ruins what we're trying to do.

NARRATOR: In the summer of 1990, while the Black Hills Institute was excavating Sue in South Dakota, Jack Horner's crew was busy excavating another T. rex two hundred miles away in Montana. Working slowly and carefully to preserve all the information at the site, Horner's dig took ten people five weeks to complete. It took six people from the Black Hills Institute less than three weeks to get Sue out of the ground.

PETER LARSON: We collect very carefully, but we have to do our job in a way in which we can support ourselves, and we can't afford to waste time taking years to excavate specimens. We have to do it in a way that is expeditious.

NARRATOR: Kirby Siber is one of the biggest fossil dealers in Europe, and a longtime friend and business associate of Peter Larson. Here, at a private quarry in Wyoming, he's excavating a young apatasaur for his own museum in Switzerland. He thinks many good commercial collectors are unfairly blamed for the actions of a few.

KIRBY SIBER: The people that are lumped into the so-called "commercial collectors," that's a very diverse group. And that goes from the people that on weekends go on their four wheelers and drive out and just pick up scrap dinosaur bones to people like us who do, you know—Probably there's very few crews in the world that have so much digging experience like us.

NARRATOR: Siber admits, though, that science and commerce sometimes require different approaches.

KIRBY SIBER: Our primary aim is to dig for displayable fossils, for museum display-grade fossils. If our primary goal was studying certain aspects of petrification, dinosaur bone structure, or whatever, we would probably dig slightly different. But that's why it's good that there are many different groups digging. Each one will have a slightly different approach. I believe in diversity.

NARRATOR: European commercial collectors are used to a more cooperative relationship with paleontologists, and Siber insists on quality documentation.

KIRBY SIBER: It just makes plain sense to do it this way. When we do things, we like to do them right. It really preserves, enhances the value of the specimen. The better you have it documented, you know, the better your product is in the end. The comparison must be made fairly. Compare the best of commercial collecting with the best of scientific collecting.

JACK HORNER: You can have commercial collectors that, that are very scrupulous, that are collecting data at their own site. They're not messing with anyone. They're keeping good records. They do the preparation. They mount specimens. They sell them somewhere, some museum. And it's all accessible. There's nothing wrong with that. But if I'm out collecting somewhere, and someone comes out and digs up a dinosaur that I've got half out of the ground, that's irritating. That's more than irritating.

ROBERT HUNT: We have had sites in Nebraska that were actively excavated by our university, invaded by commercial businesses, and we have lost material and lost vital information because of that.

JACK HORNER: Fossils have been literally bought out from under, underneath the scientists. I mean, someone comes in and just makes a new deal with private landowners.

NARRATOR: That's what happened to David Weishampel of Johns Hopkins University. After three years of work at a site on private land, he arrived one summer to find that he was no longer welcome. He blames the change on the arrival of commercial collectors in the area.

DAVID WEISHAMPEL: What they were doing was offering people money for the opportunity for them to go out and prospect and collect. And within a year, land owners were demanding to be paid for permission to come out and work these sites again, and in fact, I wasn't able to return to them.

NARRATOR: Like most scientists, Weishampel has neither the budget nor the inclination to compete with commercial collectors.

DAVID WEISHAMPEL: I don't think that everything, every physical object, really demands that it have a price tag put on it. Why can't we respect fossils for what they are? They're parcels of the history of life. Why should that be treated as something that can be bought and sold?

KIRBY SIBER: Some people, some of the academia, they have this hangup about prices. They think that you shouldn't put the price on a fossil. It's immoral to put the price on a fossil. But, let's face it. Everything has, in a way, has its price. The Americans are the ones that surely know that everything has a price! And so, even a fossil. Why not put a price on a fossil? It represents work; it represents a rarity. I mean, this price can be determined like some price of—Why are there academics that say, "We don't want to put the price on it. Never, ever! It's immoral!" This, I don't understand.

NARRATOR: Most American museums cannot afford to buy top end dinosaurs from commercial dealers. With a few exceptions, they use their own staff paleontologists to collect new specimens. But foreign museums are a different story. Especially in Japan, where many new museums are in development, paying the high cost of commercially collected fossils is the quickest way to build new collections from scratch. Even so, commercial collectors who work without institutional support claim selling fossils is no way to get rich.

PETER LARSON: It's a tremendous output of money that goes into the digging, the excavation, the cleaning, preparation, and mounting of that dinosaur. One of our dinosaurs takes 15,000 hours to prepare. There is not one commercial fossil dealer that has gotten rich ever. If you can find one, I'd sure like to know who he is and maybe I could sell him some stuff.

NARRATOR: In the year following the seizure, the Black Hills Institute wages an all-out war to "Free Sue." They run an aggressive public relations campaign out of their Hill City office.

MARION ZENKER: A fifty-piece mailing has to go out to the AAPS members and it's all got to be packed and ready to go by Friday night.

NEAL LARSON: We get in here every day hundreds of people who say, "You got to get Sue back. You got to keep up what you're doing." And that gives us strength.

CUSTOMER: Free Sue! It's the one with Sue coming out of the jail.

NARRATOR: Every visitor to the gift shop gets a crash course in fossil politics. Through it all is a constant theme of abuse of power by the government.

PETER LARSON: People are paying attention to what goes on here. And they're not going to be able to do the type of thing that they have been able to do in other cases and it just goes away. It's not going to go away here. We're never going to quit this fight.

NARRATOR: Their attorneys file a civil suit against the government, demanding the return of Sue. And the dinosaur sits in a warehouse in Rapid City while the custody battle rages on. Public protests mounted by the Institute get louder and more abrasive. U.S. attorney Kevin Schieffer is singled out for special abuse. The attack is relentless and sometimes ugly.

KEVIN SCHIEFFER: Well, it's not a pleasant situation in any event, but we do what we have to do.

NARRATOR: Schieffer doesn't have much to say in public, but behind the scenes, he's turned up the heat on the criminal investigation of the Institute. In January, 1993, Federal prosecutors subpoena thousands of BHI business records.

NEAL LARSON: Field notes and everything else. Photo albums. Every piece of work we've ever done that we liked and we took pictures of, and pictures that people have sent us. It's all here. It's all gone.

NARRATOR: Investigators sift through the seized records looking for evidence of crimes, specifically, of taking fossils from Federal land. The western states are checkerboards of private and public land—national parks, Forest Service, BLM, and parts of Indian reservations. It's often arid, eroded country passed up by homesteaders in the 1800s. But that same quality makes it a rich source of fossils as new specimens weather out of the ground. It's long been government policy to deny access to commercial collectors. Collecting without a permit amounts to theft of government property, though the law has rarely been enforced. Former park ranger Vince Santucci has spent years documenting cases of fossil poaching in national parks.

VINCE SANTUCCI: People were getting either a slap on the wrist or no penalties at all. It incensed me in a personal way that, boy, fossils don't receive the respect they deserve. You know, if this was an archaeological site or if somebody shot a buffalo, my gosh, the SWAT team would be out. But because we're talking about fossils at that time, people just didn't really have the energy and the enthusiasm to correct this problem.

NARRATOR: But now, there's energy and enthusiasm to spare. Using field notes seized from the Black Hills Institute, investigators begin searching for illegal excavation sites on Federal land.

ASST. U.S. ATTORNEY, ROBERT MANDEL: It was a surprisingly difficult thing to do. I guess if you didn't think about it, you'd think, 'What's there to it?' But we had to prove where particular specimens came from, establish that that was, in fact, government land, that there wasn't any permission given for taking those fossils. In fact, their field notes were very good, and that's how we determined that a number of them did come off Federal lands.

NARRATOR: At each site, they also search for evidence that would tie BHI employees to the location. As the investigation grows, dozens of agents follow leads all over the west and as far away as Japan and South America. In July, 1993, the FBI returns to Hill City, armed with a search warrant.

PETER LARSON: They came into this office, locked the door, and they were in there with the computers apparently copying everything from our computer onto their computer.

MARION ZENKER: Everything, all of our financial files, our. . .

NEAL LARSON: They took unopened mail, they opened mail, they did all kinds of. . .

PETER LARSON: They took, they took things such as the confidential client file from our attorney in there. It didn't matter what; if they thought they had a use for it, they took it.

PATRICK DUFFY: The Department of the Interior, of course, has been involved. BLM, Bureau of Land Management, has been involved. Forest Service has been involved. It would probably be hard, from the Pentagon all the way to Smokey the Bear, to find anybody who hasn't been involved in this case at one point or another.

PETER LARSON: Apparently, they're investigating our entire lives. Certainly back at least as far 1974 when we stared this business, with the allegation of multi-state criminal activity. These allegations are all unfounded.

NARRATOR: 144,000 acres of South Dakota's Badlands National Park overlap the Pine Ridge reservation of the Oglala Sioux. The tribe is responsible for enforcing park regulations on this part of the reservation. Terry Roy is the chief ranger for tribal land. He spends a lot of time chasing fossil poachers.

TERRY ROY: We have close to 5,000 square miles to cover with only like seven rangers, enforcement rangers, to do the task, and it's an extremely difficult task, to say the least.

RANGER: Yo, J.R.! We got somebody down there. From your left, just go straight down. He's just bending over now, picking something up.

NARRATOR: Most of the time, poachers in this part of the park are local people.

TERRY ROY: The violators know the Badlands in this area probably better than we do. They practically live out here. From sunup to sundown just about every day, they're spending out here. They know all the tricks of the trade. They know where to hide, where not to hide. They know our routines. They monitor our radio frequencies. They know our maps, they know our sectors, our patrol schedules, everything. It's sort of a game of intelligence.

RANGER: I'll keep an eye on him.

TERRY ROY: Just because we are able to see them, doesn't mean we're going to get them. There's quite the route between us and them, even if we have visual contact.

RANGER: Junior, it looks like he's still digging down there. Just go ahead and keep going down slow. He's spotted you now, Junior.

NARRATOR: It's common knowledge among the rangers that local poachers are working for dealers off the reservation.

TERRY ROY: It's bounty hunting. They would specify what sort of items they were looking for. They want complete skulls. They want the best possible specimen that they can find within the Badlands. Once they actually go through that process and see how much money's involved, they're pretty much. . . They're hooked; got them hook, line, and sinker.

NARRATOR: The Pine Ridge reservation has the lowest per capita income of any county in the United States. Unemployment is 80%. Calvin Ferguson has a part-time job as a bus driver, but until recently, he was doing much better as a fossil hunter.

CALVIN FERGUSON: Most money I ever made on a fossil is about $2,500. It was on a cat skull. I wasn't hurting nobody. Just out makin' money. It's something I always loved to do, too. It was just like, every day it was different. It was like going treasure hunting every day. Sometimes, it would take you a week to make five hundred dollars, or it'd take you one day to make five hundred dollars. All depends on how your day went, how lucky you was.

NARRATOR: Over the years, the buyers showed the local people how to make a living in the fossil trade.

CALVIN FERGUSON: They were there with the money, and we learned a lot from them, too. Told us where the good zones were to hunt that might make the most money and the quickest money.

NARRATOR: Federal investigators suspect that some of those fossils were finding their way to the Black Hills Institute. But when the rangers started cracking down on the poachers, the buyers got scarce.

CALVIN FERGUSON: It seems like right about when that Sue thing started going on about that T. rex, then that's when the Park Service started going too, on the reservation. And that's when the white guys got scared and didn't want to come down and get caught.

NARRATOR: The fossil trade can be a mixed blessing for Native Americans.

TERRY ROY: We have a great respect for the land. Our culture pretty much dictates that. There's a lot of traditional people that would see any exploitation of the resources being wrong, regardless of the economic need. But, a person like Calvin and other people, it's understandable. We're not looking to prosecute, convict, anybody on this level, because, in my opinion, they're the ones that's being taken advantage of. Them and the resources.

CALVIN FERGUSON: I think we should do it in the right way, like issuing out permits to the tribal members. What the Park Service here on the reservation is trying to do is make it legal for tribal members and giving out permits, but it'd be best to give out permits to the ones that have been doing it for a while and know what they're doing instead of amateurs.

NARRATOR: In the meantime, Calvin drives the bus and looks forward to being a legitimate collector someday, a change that would not only provide some local employment, but would also help deter the most serious threat posed to paleontology by the fossil black market: illegal traders attempting to cover their tracks.

ROBERT HUNT: If fossils are collected illegally, if data is not accurate, if specimens are reported to come from Wyoming, but in fact, they really come from Montana, the raw material of science, the hard data that we need to reconstruct environments of the past, evolution and so forth, we can't trust that data, and once we can't trust the data, we can't trust the science that comes from that data.

NARRATOR: In November, 1993, a Federal grand jury in Rapid City returns a thirty-nine count indictment, charging the Black Hills Institute partners with fifteen instances of fossil theft from public land, and a long list of white collar crimes, like conspiracy and wire fraud, arising from the sale of those fossils. Around the same time, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals rules that the Institute has no legal claim to the T. rex called Sue.

PATRICK DUFFY: Bad news. Let's shut the door and I'll talk to you about it. I'll tell you about how the opinion went down.

NARRATOR: The partners gather at lawyer Patrick Duffy's office to hear the details.

PATRICK DUFFY: Well, Maurice Williams owns Sue. The United States of America holds Sue in trust for Maurice Williams. To put it simply, it's his dinosaur now. Petition for Cert to the United States Supreme Court would be the next step, and depending on whether it's granted or denied, that would determine how much longer this is going to go on.

NARRATOR: This is also bad news for the Cheyenne River Sioux, who have lost their claim to the T. rex as well.

GREGG BOURLAND: We have a long-standing history of getting screwed by some unscrupulous type folks around the country, including other governments, so we're pretty much used to this kind of stuff.

PETER LARSON: With what's happened throughout this, it's almost as if. . . You think of the Mummy's Curse. It's the Curse of Sue, that everybody who is touched by this is in some way harmed.

NARRATOR: On December 10th, 1993, the Black Hills defendants report to the Federal Court House to plead not guilty to all counts of the criminal indictment. There are no charges relating to the T. rex, but the defendants contend they are being targeted because of Sue.

PATRICK DUFFY: This indictment, thirty-nine counts worth, exists in the form it does to punish my clients for having spoken out against an absolutely punitive raid by the Federal government. Had they never spoken, I'm confident, had they never spoken out, had they never taken their case to the street, so to speak, we wouldn't be sitting here today.

NARRATOR: The prosecutors, who've been working the case for more than three years, deny that there's any retribution involved, despite the anti-government rhetoric of the "Save Sue" campaign.

ROBERT MANDEL: Something you have to understand is that this case went through three U.S. Attorneys. And even if you wanted to believe that one person might have had some personal animosity, it kind of stretches the imagination a bit to think that three U.S. Attorneys in a row would have the same personal vendetta against some defendants. And that's just not true. That's not what drove the case.

ROBERT MANDEL: The United States holds the dinosaur Sue in trust for Maurice Williams, but that does not have bearing on the criminal case that we were just talking about.

NARRATOR: The prosecutors have little to say to the press. They've spent millions of dollars building their case and don't want it jeopardized with pre-trial publicity. It's been expensive for the defendants as well, who have run up legal bills over a hundred thousand dollars. That night, they gather at Peter Larson's house to watch the news.

TV NEWS: Christmas won't be coming early for the Black Hills Institute, following a ruling from the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals that Sue, the Tyrannosaurus rex, belongs to the Federal government, not the Institute. The ruling couldn't come at a worse time for the Institute as employees appear in court to face thirty-nine counts of illegally taking other fossils from the government.

NARRATOR: For the first time ever in the United States, people are facing serious jail time for fossil crimes.

TV NEWS: The defendants headed to Federal Court this morning to face a total of thirty-nine counts, charges that include conspiracy, theft of government property, interstate transportation of stolen goods, money laundering, and obstruction of justice. If convicted, the defendants face fines of up to $500,000 and up to ten years in prison.

PETER LARSON: Up to ten years in prison?

NARRATOR: In fact, they each face more than three hundred years in prison and twelve million dollars in fines. But the harsh penalties are not for the fossil thefts, which are minor offenses under current law. It's the white collar crimes that could send them to prison. Many people feel there should be tougher laws to protect fossils in the first place.

VINCE SANTUCCI: The fact is that the laws currently say that it's illegal to take them, OK? There's a permitting system that's set up to protect those fossils. The thing is that people are going ahead and taking them anyways.

MARK GOODWIN: What is it? A $50 fine now for collecting fossils on public lands? I mean, that's a slap on the wrist. It's worth the risk to a commercial collector. They can get a quarter of a million dollars, a half a million dollars, $800,000 for a good dinosaur skeleton.

NARRATOR: To the dismay of most scientists, in the current political climate of deregulation, Congress is more likely to open up Federal land to commercial collecting than to toughen laws against it.

MARK GOODWIN: I don't like to see paleontology politicized. I didn't want to enter the maze of Washington, D.C., contact my Congressman, and start lobbying for further protection of fossils. But I don't see any choice.

NARRATOR: Most commercial collectors argue that Federal land should be opened up, without restriction, for the good of the fossils.

PETER LARSON: Because there's millions and millions of square miles in this country that are sedimentary rock that are filled with fossils. Every time it rains, there's new fossils washing out. Every time it rains, there's new fossils washing away that will never be seen again. Fossils, in order to be preserved, must be collected. The best way to ensure the preservation of fossils is to collect them and to get as many people out there looking for these fossils as possible.

MARK GOODWIN: I would argue that letting everybody out on public land, without any type of review, overview, permitting process, you wouldn't have any fossils left.

JACK HORNER: When it comes to Federal land, we will fight. We will do our best to preserve our right to collect there without them. Because, it's our only, it's our only place left. If the commercial collectors get into that as well and can compete with us, at that level, I'd say the science is going to be close to doomed.

NARRATOR: Whatever changes lie ahead in fossil law will come too late for the Black Hills Institute defendants, who finally go to trial more than a year after their indictment.

PATRICK DUFFY: By all estimates, it's going to be one of the longest criminal trials in the history of the midwest. The record alone will fill dozens of volumes. Then you'll have the appeals. The idea of getting through a trial of that length and magnitude with absolutely not one mistake being made is, at best, unlikely. Will we have to try it again? Who knows?

PETER LARSON: They have spent so much money. They need to have a picture on the ten o'clock news of me being put in handcuffs and being put in a car and being hauled off to prison in order to justify the expense of that taxpayers' money. They need that.

NARRATOR: After seven weeks of testimony, scores of witnesses, and the presentation of hundreds of pieces of evidence, the case goes to the jury, and the defendants go home to wait. Three weeks later, the jury returns its verdict. They find Peter Larson guilty of two felonies for failure to report carrying currency over $10,000 in and out of the country, and two misdemeanors for theft of government property worth less than $100. Bob Farrar, guilty of two felonies for undervaluing fossils on export declarations. Neal Larson, guilty of one misdemeanor for theft of government property worth less than $100. And for the Institute, one felony for retaining a fossil fish stolen from Badlands National Park, three felony customs violations, and one misdemeanor for theft of government property. The jury votes to acquit on seventy-three other charges, and is hung on sixty-eight. Despite felony convictions, the defense claims victory.

TV REPORTER: Any comments on the verdict today?

PATRICK DUFFY: None, other than sheer delight.

TV REPORTER: Why is that?

PATRICK DUFFY: Well, we ended up with how many? You guys know better than I do. How many misdemeanors? Four or five? And how many felonies? Three or four? So, we're probably talking about maybe the most expensive misdemeanors in the history of the Republic.

TV REPORTER: What's the cigar? Is this a victory cigar?

PATRICK DUFFY: You got that right. See ya, guys.

NARRATOR: Cleared of the most serious charges, but still facing the possibility of prison time when sentence is passed, the Black Hills partners once again go home to wait. The message to the fossil trade is clear: Until further notice, public land is off limits. Now, the question is, can science and commerce find ways to co-exist? In at least one case, they already have. Here on the Blackfeet reservation in Northern Montana. Jack Horner worked here for years before a company called Canada Fossils approached the tribe with a business proposition. They would pay tribal members to dig dinosaurs and prepare the bones, and pay the tribe a royalty on sales. But first, they had to contend with Jack.

DON DUBRAY: The Blackfeet tribe has made arrangements with Jack Horner for a long time. So, when Canada Fossils came in, we were kind of a little bit reluctant to just turn it over to a commercial company and put Jack out. So, they went down and they met and they made a kind of a deal.

JACK HORNER: When they find something that they think is unusual, they bring it to my attention. And I think that's good. If it's unusual enough, they just turn it over. And I think that's sort of the right thing to do. I mean, it's sort of, it's the commercial collectors attempting to keep peace with the professionals.

RENÉ VANDERVELD: I'm not sure that he was particularly keen on seeing us arrive, but I think that over the five years that we've been working together, he has understood that we can help him.

NARRATOR: So, Horner keeps an eye on the fossils coming out of the ground and makes sure that nothing important is lost to science. And Canada Fossils brings its resources to the preservation of material that might otherwise be lost to erosion. In a field with barely enough institutional support to begin with, a cooperative venture like this one can help everyone involved, including the landowner, in this case, the Blackfeet, who have seen a lot of valuable fossils leave their reservation over the past hundred years.

DON DUBRAY: Until we made a deal with Canada Fossils, the Indians never got a thing, nothing, out of these fossils. So, I think they really belong to us and we should decide what we're going to do with them.

NARRATOR: Dorothy Flamand works for Canada Fossils as a digger and a preparator. She's been collecting dinosaur bones since she was a little girl.

DOROTHY FLAMAND: My grandmother didn't think too much of it. She told me that was a burial ground and to leave it alone. She said it was big people. She told me to bring the bones back where they come from. So, I had to bring them back. I like to be out there exploring and finding dinosaurs and new species. That's just like getting a present every day, when you uncover a bone when you don't know what it is. But I sure wouldn't want to find a T. rex. They fight too much over them.

In February, 1996, Peter Larson began serving a two-year sentence in Federal Prison.

Neal Larson received two years probation.

The convictions against Bob Farrar were thrown out.

Sue is scheduled to go on the auction block at Sotheby's in April 1997.

Maurice Williams is looking for a million dollar bid.

______: The dinosaurs weren't alone. Bring their world to life by sifting through the crucial evidence buried alongside them. Dig into NOVA's website at To order this show for $19.95 plus shipping and handling, call 1-800-949-8670. And to learn more about how science can solve the mysteries of our world, as about our many other NOVA videos.

______: NOVA is a production of WGBH, Boston. NOVA is funded by Prudential.

______: Prudential. Insurance, health care, real estate, and financial services. For more than a century, bringing strength and stability to America's families.

______: And by Merck. Merck. Pharmaceutical research. Dedicated to preventing disease. Merck. Committed to bringing out the best in medicine. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting. And viewers like you.

______: This is PBS.

______: Next time on NOVA. The story of a girl who spent her childhood locked in a bedroom. With footage never before seen on television, NOVA follows the controversial efforts to unlock the Secret of the Wild Child. That's next time, on NOVA.


About NOVA | NOVA Homepage | Support NOVA

© | Created September 2006