Skeletons in Their Closet

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

On May 14, 1992, National Guardsmen and FBI agents crashed into the Black Hills Institute and confiscated dozens of fossils, including Sue. Later, in court, U.S. attorneys contended that because Williams's ranch was part of an Indian reservation and thus held in trust by the government, the dinosaur skeleton could not be sold without the permission of the U.S. Department of the Interior--the fact that Williams had already cashed and spent the check notwithstanding.

Peter Larson and his brother, Neal, were eventually charged with more than three dozen felony counts related to fossil poaching. Yet after several years of legal wrangling and ferocious debates over who owns old bones, the subject fossils and the T. rex somehow disappeared from the case.

In fact, by the time Peter was finally convicted in 1995, his supposed crimes were not remotely related to dinosaurs or fossil hunting. Instead, he was sentenced to a year in federal prison for not declaring $31,700 worth of traveler's checks he'd brought into this country and for failure to report $15,000 worth he had taken to Peru.

Patrick Duffy, Larson's attorney, attributes federal prosecutors' unusual enthusiasm for the case to pressure from envious academic paleontologists, who vigorously lobbied for Larson's conviction. "These guys need to be able to dig exclusively, because that's how they advance their careers," he says. "If they could've accomplished a tenth of what Peter Larson accomplished, they would've been academic superstars. They would be made in the academic Mafia."

One federal judge seemed to agree. "The roots of the dispute appear to extend into the murky depths of an earlier and ongoing argument between and among public, academic and commercial collectors and curators vying for control of archaeological remains," appellate judge Arlen Beam wrote in a dissenting opinion earlier this year. "The criminal prosecutorial arm of the United States was apparently recruited to participate in this continuing battle...But [stealing fossils] seems to have been long since forgotten."

For the past five years, the T. rex skeleton named Sue has resided in a basement at the South Dakota School of Mines. It is scheduled to be removed later this summer, when it will be auctioned off to the highest bidder by Sotheby's in New York City. Maurice Williams will keep the proceeds, which are anticipated to range anywhere from several hundred thousand dollars to several million.

Larson will be released this summer from the federal penitentiary in Florence to a halfway house. After filing nine separate appeals, Duffy has been forced to let the sentence ride. But he's far from content.

"The laws covering this sort of thing are frighteningly vague," he says. "And on top of that, you have a staggering willingness on the part of the government to spend millions and millions of dollars on these cases where the laws are simply unintelligible.

"The moral of the case," Duffy concludes, "is, 'Don't piss off the Department of Justice. Because they'll crush you.'"

That lesson was not lost on Kirby Siber, a Swiss commercial fossiler. In fact, after observing his friend Peter Larson trying to keep his head above federal-agent-infested waters, Siber didn't even want to take a chance swimming.

In 1992, while digging on a private lease in north-central Wyoming, Siber and his team discovered the well-preserved skeleton of an allosaurus, a huge carnivorous theropod. Siber knew he was still on private land, because he was working inside the owner's fence.

When they learned of the discovery, however, local BLM agents suddenly took an intense interest in the dig. They visited the site with a surveyor. After re-examining the property, they determined that the allosaurus actually had been discovered several feet inside BLM land, despite the decades-old fence line. Siber, says Neal Larson, ceded the skeleton without a fight; today it rests in the Museum of the Rockies, in Billings, Montana.

And what of the rare and beautiful stingray so diligently pursued and confiscated by Sergeant Rogers on the National Geographic Explorer show? Gael Hebdon knows its history.

"That stingray in that undercover sting came from a quarry we leased from a private rancher," she says. "It was dug legally." She has the receipts to prove it. After preparing the piece, the Hebdons sold the stingray to an Italian collector, Dr. Flavio Bacchia, who put it in the hands of a man named Glenn Rockers to sell at an Arizona rock show. That's where Rockers ran into Rogers. Rockers was the man Rogers busted in the Cheyenne parking lot.

"We got a long-distance call from Dr. Bacchia who told us, 'My ray's been taken,'" Hebdon recalls. "So I sent a letter to Mr. Rogers explaining the ownership and origins of the stingray. Later I tried to call him. Well, he never would call me back. So then I tried to call his boss, the sheriff, and he didn't call me back, either.

"Finally, this past February, I got ahold of the sergeant, and he said the ray was being tested by the FBI and we couldn't have it back. And then this program aired in March. The whole punchline was the confiscation of a supposedly illegal stingray that, in fact, is completely legal."

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