Skeletons in Their Closet

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

Rogers declines to answer questions about the National Geographic Explorer segment, in which Rockers's face was purposely obscured. "I don't discuss specific cases--it's just not good policy," he says. Rogers concedes that no one has been arrested yet in the stingray case; however, he adds that the investigation is ongoing.

Hebdon remains unimpressed with Operation Rock Fish. "The whole thing has become a kind of joke," she says. "It's like one man's claim to fame. These people in Operation Rock Fish make a lot of noise, but I don't think anyone has ever been convicted."

That's not entirely accurate. In the past five years, Sergeant Rogers and Operation Rock Fish have enjoyed exactly one felony fossil-swiping conviction.

On August 15, 1996, Eileen, Doran and Brian Wade went to trial. Each was charged with four counts of swiping public treasures. The government called sedimentologists, surveyors, geologists, environmental scientists and fossil appraisers as witnesses. "Throughout this whole thing I kept thinking, 'Don't you guys have bigger fish to fry?'" recalls Steven Sharpe of Cheyenne, Doran's court-appointed attorney.

Indeed, determining the magnitude of the Wades's alleged crimes against the United States proved elusive. One commercial fossiler, Wallace Ulrich, who has sold fossils to Bill Gates for his new $30 million home outside of Seattle, placed the value of the rocks confiscated from the Wades' pickup at about $6,000. Jordan Sawdo, a Denver appraiser with thirty years of experience, pegged their worth at closer to $350; a third guessed about $250.

After a two-day trial, the jury deliberated for four hours. Eileen and Doran were found innocent of all four charges. Brian was found guilty of one: theft of government property worth more than $100. On November 6, 1996, he was sentenced to fourteen months in prison and a $2,000 fine. He is appealing his case.

And the Pecks? Last year their lawyer asked a U.S. District Court judge to suppress all the evidence federal agents gathered on the morning of July 19, 1995. In September the judge agreed, ruling that the Pecks were never read their Miranda rights and that the force used against them during their arrest was excessive for the crime that they were suspected of. The U.S. Attorney's office has appealed that decision.

Eileen sits at her kitchen table with Brian's youngest daughter squirming on her knee. Doran slumps in the chair to her left. He is deeply tanned and shirtless, his long white hair swept back dramatically. A television cartoon show blares in the background: Eileen and Doran are watching Brian's three girls until his release from prison.

Eileen disappears for a moment and returns to the kitchen with a thick leather briefcase. She lays it on the table. She unzips the cover of the case. She pulls it open and smiles.

The mammal is about fifteen inches from snout to tail. Its back legs are jointed and cocked, like a frog's; a small bony tail rests between them. Its ribs crisscross each other like delicate toothpicks laid in a complex pattern. Its body curves gently to the left; a single clavicle juts from the right shoulder. Its mouth is open in a perpetual scream; tiny teeth line the lower jaw. The front legs are incomplete but discernible.

Lance Grande, a paleontologist at Chicago's Field Museum, was the first person to identify the mammal--a hyopsodus, an extinct browsing ungulate about the size of an ermine.

"It's an uncommon find for a few reasons," he explains. "It is very unusual for a complete skeleton to be found. And where the Wades discovered it is noteworthy, as well; that area was mostly under water. It has been unusually well-preserved because of the lake."

Several local fossilers--Scott Stone, for instance--claim to be acting as local brokers for the mammal; they have met with mixed success.

Eileen says she has received an offer of $50,000 for the mammal from a German collector whose name she doesn't recall. Not a killing, but definitely helpful. Still, she refused to sell the piece; someday she hopes to get a better offer. "You're talking about a beauty," she says. "This would look beautiful in a museum. But we're gonna need the money. We need a farm."

One appraiser who asks to remain anonymous confirms that a complete hyopsodus skeleton is a rare find but adds that the private market for the piece is minuscule--one of four or five collections specializing in Green River formation finds might be willing to spend several tens of thousands of dollars for the mammal's remains.

Others are even less optimistic.
Now director of paleontology for the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul, Andrew Redline spent years studying hyopsodus and is considered one of the world's top experts on the species. He agrees that the Wades' find is unusual in its completeness--there are probably only three or four full skeletons known. But, he adds, the hyopsodus was a common species, and most museums would not consider it a very interesting exhibit.

"I don't know," he says. "Maybe I'd give them a thousand bucks for it.

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