Skeletons in Their Closet

The feds had a bone to pick with this fossil-hunting family.

"I call it the gargoyle," says Scott Stone, owner and sole proprietor of the Stone Fossil Co. of Frontier, Wyoming. "It's one of the most incredible finds ever. I mean, it's a fifty-million-year-old gargoyle."
Stone has never seen the piece, but, like many others, he has heard about it. He constructs the ancient remains from someone else's memory: "It's about eighteen inches tall and walks on its hind legs. It's got legs like a cat, a really heavy cat. And a lizard body and the head of a baboon! It's got wing flaps that it used to fly through the trees, and short, stubby front appendages. And big teeth, lots of teeth."

Naturally, Stone adds, the skeleton is highly coveted. "The minute the Smithsonian saw it, they wanted it," he says. "They offered $100,000. Of course, that's a pittance. I'm trying to sell it for $3 million. But it's worth many, many times that. The thing belongs in a museum. But, you know, we're commercial collectors."

Eileen Wade, a Rock Springs, Wyoming, grandmother with a round, cheerful face, confirms her family's find. "It's in a bank vault," she explains. Yes, the Smithsonian did seem rather interested at one time. And so did that scientist from the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. And the two men who made the trip from the Denver Museum of Natural History.

The prices being tossed around have been inflated, Wade adds, but that's no surprise; the tight community of commercial fossil collectors is a gossipy, hopeful lot. Still, a sale price in the tens of thousands of dollars certainly would not be out of line.

Wade sighs. Wouldn't it be pleasant if that was all there was to it? A nice retired couple unearths a valuable fossil. After a furious bidding war between museums and collectors, they cash in, deserving winners of a generous paleontological lottery. Sadly, it's far more complicated than that--certainly complicated enough to make Wade wonder about the wisdom of disturbing old bones.

The story really starts about forty years ago, when the Wades--Eileen and her husband, Doran--first developed what was to become a lifelong passion for rocks and fossils. The years passed, and they instilled their fascination with extinct life in their two sons, Robert and Brian.

Eventually, it came to seem like the most natural thing in the world for the family to turn its hobby into a vocation. So in 1990, when Doran retired from the local utility company, the Wades leased a quarry from a nearby rancher. They bulldozed off the top 25 feet of the earth's crust and started prospecting for prehistoric treasures. It was in that very southwestern Wyoming quarry, nearly four years ago now, that Brian unearthed the gargoyle, which Eileen prefers to call simply "the mammal."

"His truck was parked down in the hole, and there was a half-mile steep slope up to where we were," she recalls. "Well, he ran up that entire slope and just plain forgot about his truck. That's how excited he was."

It was a moment--uncovering a piece of prehistory never seen by anyone else--that represents what fossil-prospecting is all about. Eileen pauses in her recollections. Since then, of course, things haven't worked out so well for the Wades.

The quarry was a financial disaster. Eileen figures she and Doran lost about $85,000 of their retirement nest egg trying to run the damn thing honorably. But there are just so many thieves in the business trying to cash in on prehistoric gold, and the trips to the fossil and gem shows across the West got so expensive that it was as if they were pouring money into the wide holes they opened in the earth.

From there it only got worse. Last summer, somehow, Eileen, Doran and Brian found themselves standing in front of a jury in U.S. District Court in Cheyenne, waiting to hear their fate after being charged with swiping fossils from public lands. Eileen and Doran were lucky and got out of the jam. Brian wasn't. He was ordered to spend fourteen months in the federal penitentiary in Englewood.

And if all that wasn't stressful enough, family troubles long buried under hardened layers of civility began to surface. The Wades suspect that one of the government's key sources of inside information in its case against them was brother Robert, who, they say, willingly snitched on Brian and his parents. Eileen, a forgiving type, has begun speaking to her son again. Doran still refuses. "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me," he says before closing the subject with a snap.

But at least the Wades still have the mammal, the sale of which, Eileen says, will someday lift them out of debt and carry them to that farm they've wanted to buy for so long. In the meantime, it turns out, the fossil is available for inspection. "I only tell people I keep it in a bank deposit box because I want them to think we don't have it here," Eileen confides. "I guess you can see it."

Operation Rock Fish was pretty much Sergeant Steve Rogers's idea. "I'm a pilot for the Lincoln County Sheriff's Department," he explains. "And back in 1991 or '92, while out on ordinary patrol, I began noticing these giant holes in the ground. I thought, 'That's kind of weird.' So I got with a federal Bureau of Land Management ranger on the ground. And we discovered it was the result of fossil poachers."

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