The Bust Was a Bust

Who got stung by National Geographic's on-camera sting of a fossil "poacher"?

Last March a 35-million-year-old stingray fossil found in Wyoming became a television star and a symbol of all that is wrong with private fossil hunters. Now a national organization of fossil hunters and collectors has mounted a rebuttal campaign and threatened a lawsuit, arguing that a National Geographic TV show about illegal fossil collection was a fraud and that it maligned a legitimate fossil dealer in order to make a local sheriff look like a hero.

The debate over who has the right to collect and traffic in fossils is a fierce one. Academic societies and archaeologists have maintained that the collection and study of the ancient remains is a demanding science too important to be left to amateurs. Private prospectors, meanwhile, contend that there are plenty of fossils in the ground for everyone and that non-academic rock hounds are legitimate players in the recovery of the buried treasures. They also observe that more fossils are destroyed every year by erosion and other natural agents than could ever be ruined by any incompetent collector.

The National Geographic documentary "Thieves of Time," an expose of the supposedly booming field of illegal fossil-dealing, ran on national TV last March. At the center of the show was a Lincoln County, Wyoming, sheriff's sergeant named Steve Rogers.

Rogers is the founder of an anti-fossil-poaching campaign named Operation Rock Fish, after the most common remains found buried in the Green River formation in southwestern Wyoming. Although numerous agencies have helped him out--the Bureau of Land Management, the FBI, the National Park Service and the Wyoming National Guard--the driving force behind the effort has always been Sergeant Rogers.

Operation Rock Fish's efforts in Wyoming have resulted in few arrests and fewer convictions ("Skeletons in the Closet," June 19). But as a touchstone for the who-owns-fossils debate, Rogers's campaign has drawn national attention. Throughout 1996, a film crew working for National Geographic followed Rogers as he buzzed around the desolate Wyoming countryside in a helicopter looking for poachers, traveled to Tucson for the world's largest fossil and gem show, and flew to Los Angeles to buy dinosaur eggs smuggled into the country from China.

In the show's denouement, Rogers busts a shadowy fossil dealer on camera in a Cheyenne parking lot and recovers an "illegal" stingray. As the National Geographic show closes, Rogers is clearly pleased. "This is a very good feeling that we're able to get this back here," he says to the camera. "It's like finding a lost child and returning it. It's home where it belongs. So we call it a win."

Glenn Rockers has a different version of the story. Rockers should have some inside knowledge: He was the dealer busted by Rogers in Cheyenne. Problem is, it appears as though he did nothing illegal. "This whole thing has caused me a lot of embarrassment," he says today. "It was a case of an overzealous cop who wanted to make a name for himself. This was hype. It was all hype."

"Sergeant Rogers is an egomaniac and a buffoon," adds Bill Mason. "He tries everything he can do to come out looking like a hero. What we're trying to do now is set a wrong right."

Mason is the president of the American Association of Paleontological Suppliers. Recently, the St. Paul, Minnesota, group began a campaign to debunk "Thieves of Time" and to recover the fossil confiscated by Rogers on national television. The organization is "prepared to pursue litigation for the return of the stingray," Mason wrote to Lincoln County attorney Greg Corpening last week.

Rogers did not return calls to his office. Corpening wouldn't comment on the case. But William Wallace, director of business and legal affairs for National Geographic Television, in Washington, D.C., says National Geographic regrets nothing.

"We don't consider ['Thieves of Time'] to be the only story there," Wallace says. "But it was well-researched. There are always opposing views. However, [the stingray sting] was part of the police effort, and we put it in as such. Obviously, the show hit a raw nerve with somebody, but we stand behind our story."

The crucial fact in the case is location. Whether Glenn Rockers was a fossil poacher worthy of televised humiliation or a legitimate broker of prehistoric artifacts wrongly accused depends on where the stingray was found. Fossils taken from private land are fair game for private sale. Those removed from public land are not. Rockers and others say the stingray was legit. And they say they have proof.

According to invoices and a flurry of letters and testimonials written by the fossil's various owners, the stingray logged a lot of miles before ending up in Rogers's possession. It was dug on Wyoming's Thompson Ranch, on private land leased by professional fossil hunters Gael and Rick Hebdon of Thayne, Wyoming.

The Hebdons sold it on September 5, 1994, to a private collector named Dr. Flavio Bacchia, a geologist from Trieste, Italy. An invoice shows that Bacchia paid the Hebdons $1,000. He then flew the piece back to Europe, where he had it prepared for show by having missing parts restored with plaster and other materials. He later turned it over to Rockers on consignment, hoping that Rockers, the owner of a Hays, Kansas, business called PaleoSearch, could sell it for him.

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