Skeletons in Their Closet

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

Doran and Eileen Wade live on the western edge of Rock Springs. Their neighborhood spreads toward the buttes in a tide of indistinguishable mobile and prefab homes, junker cars and piles of furniture bleached colorless by years of weathering. The Wade house, however, stands out because of its porch.

Built by Eileen over the course of three years, it is a beautiful enclosed foyer constructed of local rocks, many of them containing the imprint of fossils. A delicate saballitis palm graces one rock near the cornerstone; another section of the wall contains a small fish. "Rocks is something I've done forever," says Eileen.

Inside the cluttered house, more fossils hang on the walls. These have been mounted on flat plaster squares. The imprint of a relatively rare garfish, which looks like a flattened piece of dried fish, hangs by the dining room table. A small mounted stingray leaned against the fireplace; recently, one of the Wades' grandchildren broke it.

"To me," Doran says, gazing at his collection, "they're beautiful. They tell me what life was like."

Born in Oregon, Doran moved to Denver in the 1950s, where he easily fed his rock-hounding habit. He discovered petrified leaf imprints in the old Robinson Clay Mine, near Golden, including a giant palm that spread like a peacock plume along a rock face. For their vacations, he and Eileen would drive the seven-hour trip to the Green River Formation. They moved to Rock Springs for good in 1975.

"When we moved to Wyoming, every rock club you joined took you fossil hunting," Eileen recalls. "Everybody and their brother hunts fossils here. Some of it was on private land, but a lot of it was on public land. Nobody cared. The BLM would even tell you where the fossils were."

In the years leading up to Doran's retirement, the Wades fed their passion by signing on to dig in a private quarry outside Kemmerer. Like rock sharecroppers, they split any of the common fish fossils they found with the property's lease-holder. He got rare finds, for which the Wades were supposed to receive a bonus but, it seemed, never did.

Tired of working for someone else, in August 1990, the month Doran retired, the Wades signed a three-year lease for their own 160-acre dig site. They had high hopes.

"The first year we thought we would do just great," recalls Eileen.
"Ooh, boy, that was a dream," Doran adds.
"We thought we'd add to our retirement income and buy a farm," Eileen continues. "We kept thinking, 'Next year we'll make it. Next year.'"

Despite the stories of million-dollar sales that race through every fossil show, however, very few people make a living selling fossils. Each summer the Wades dug fossils and spent dozens of hours preparing them. Each fall they'd attend the big shows in Arizona, where they'd camp out for a month. And at the end of each year, they'd balance their books and discover they'd barely broken even.

Doran fetches a painstakingly prepared plate, a prehistoric tableau. In the center is a 21-inch-long phareodus, its body curved into a graceful arc, its bones in sharp relief. A knightia, another fish, swims close to its tail. The plate also contains a third fish, a diplomystus, below the phareodus.

"This plate would sell for $2,500 to $3,000 at a fossil shop," says Doran. "But we couldn't sell it for $300 at the fossil shows.

"The big myth in fossil hunting," he continues, "is that there is big money to be made. But there is no way you can make what people say."

Still, there were some bright spots. Brian seemed to have a knack for finding fossils--like the mammal, which he discovered in July 1993. "I was digging in the quarry, throwing the tailings behind me," he recalls from his current home in the federal pen in Englewood.

"I had split off the top of this rock, about two inches thick and one and a half feet square, and I saw the indentation. At first I thought it was a bird. So I turned around to the tailings pile and found the top section of the rock. It had broken in pieces, so I put it back together. We took it to the local hospital to have it X-rayed, to see what was left in the rock." The shadowy pictures showed the nearly complete skeletal remains of a small prehistoric mammal--a highly unusual find, particularly for an area that was once an ancient lake bed.

By the time their lease on the quarry ran out, the Wades calculated they'd lost more than $80,000. After paying the lease and renting a bulldozer to scrape off the topsoil layers, much of their retirement fund was gone.

But they still had the bug. So in the summer of 1995, the Wades, along with some friends who also loved digging fossils, began seeking a permit to dig on a piece of state land near 18 Mile Canyon, about forty miles north of Rock Springs. "We're not drinkers, we're doers," Eileen explains. "We like having something to do. I know it sounds stupid. But we're ambitious, active people." In what would later become an important point during the Wades' criminal trial, the state land they hoped to lease lay adjacent to federal BLM property.

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