Skeletons in Their Closet

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

On the evening of July 18, the Wades and their friends, Lance and Belinda Peck, began driving toward the proposed dig site in order to scope it out for purposes of the lease, they say. They left at night because they wanted to be at the remote location at daybreak to avoid the scorching summer heat. Brian was along for the trip.

A twenty-year resident of tiny Rock Springs, Brian Wade had become a bit of a project for the Lincoln County sheriff's department. He'd recently been implicated in a break-in at the local museum. (He maintains he had nothing to do with the burglary.) Over the years he'd also been suspected generally of collecting and selling fossils from federal land and, specifically, of taking some fossils from the owner of another local quarry--although nothing was ever recovered and Brian was never charged.

Brian also is a self-described wiseass who prided himself on mouthing off to local cops. He had never been good at keeping a low profile; in fact, he'd even obtained a measure of local fame. After appearing on a national daytime talk show (the topic: "Separated couples in which one partner wants to get back together"), he'd been contacted by A Current Affair. The tabloid show paid to fly him and his wife, Sue Anne, to a private island in the Bahamas for a nationally televised reconciliation effort. The trip was a complete failure. "I snorkled on one side of the island. She snorkled on the other side," Brian says. "We barely talked."

This missed opportunity to patch up his differences with Sue Anne would come back to haunt Brian. After the trip to the Bahamas, he says, their relationship became increasingly acrimonious. Although the Wades didn't know it at the time, court documents reveal that in the summer of 1995 Sue Anne contacted local law enforcement officials and tipped them off that the Wades would soon be in 18 Mile Canyon digging for fossils. (Robert Wade also may have given inside information to the cops; reached in Pennsylvania, where he is living temporarily, Robert denies it.)

The tips prompted BLM agents Terry Sauer and Michael Miller to visit 18 Mile Canyon on July 14 and establish surveillance sites. At first it appeared their efforts would be in vain. "I set up a couple times to wait for the Wades," recalls Sauer, who recently transferred to a BLM office in Montana. "But we hadn't been able to catch up with them."

On the evening of July 18, the agents got a break; Sauer observed the Wades' pickup pulling out of Rock Springs. By 11 p.m., Miller was at his surveillance site in 18 Mile Canyon, where, he later testified, he heard voices and digging sounds until about 4:30 a.m., at which time he observed two sets of headlights heading out of the canyon. Soon, one split off to the south; this would turn out to be the Pecks' truck. The Wades headed north out of 18 Mile Canyon.

The Wades were pulled over by a state trooper who'd accompanied the BLM agents on the stakeout. "When they stopped us, I wasn't worried," Eileen recalls. "Because there was nothing to it. This was a place where everybody dug. Everybody I knew used to dig there at one time or another." The trooper and BLM agents confiscated 25 rock plates from the Wades that morning before releasing them.

Back on the other side of the canyon, their friends were having a worse time of it. After following the couple for about twenty miles, Sauer and another BLM agent stopped the Pecks, whose eleven-year-old niece was asleep in the backseat. The couple was apprehended at gunpoint; Lance was ordered to kneel on the ground and was handcuffed. The agents took several boxes of rocks from the Pecks' vehicle. An hour later, after questioning, the Pecks were released.

Vagaries in the law haven't prevented the government from vigorously pursuing suspected poachers. Propelled by public sentiment fed by popular movies such as Jurassic Park and The Lost World, federal agencies have spent tens of millions of dollars chasing down commercial paleontologists in an effort to convict them of something.

Anything at all, in fact.
On August 12, 1990, Susan Hendrickson spotted a piece of a dinosaur bone protruding from the side of a hill near the town of Faith, South Dakota. She wasn't there by accident: Hendrickson was a team member and girlfriend of Peter Larson, an owner and founder of the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research and one of the country's most respected commercial fossilers. Black Hills has unearthed five of the seventeen known Tyrannosaurus rex skeletons in good condition.

Larson immediately wrote the landowner, rancher Maurice Williams, a $5,000 check--the largest sum ever paid for the rights to a still-buried fossil. Over the next two years, Larson and his team excavated the skeleton. It would turn out to be the most complete T. rex ever unearthed. Larson named it Sue, after its discoverer.

Despite the thrill of the find, publicity over Sue began creating problems for the Black Hills Institute. Even though Larson had paid for the rights to dig, by 1992 ownership of the remains had become a point of bitter contention. Williams is a Native American, and suddenly the Cheyenne River Sioux wanted a piece of the dinosaur, claiming ownership because it had been dug on the reservation.

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