Bones of Contention

Finding Barnum was hard enough. But to excavate the intrigue around the prize T. rex, you must dig deeper.

Grano and Miller say that Butterfield's abruptly lost interest in the T. rex after Newman called Herskowitz and claimed that Ty Rex was in no position to strike a deal because he still owned the item in question. (According to the contract, Newman had transferred ownership to Miller on March 15 for $50,000 and a promissory note for the remaining $350,000.) Newman insists his phone call didn't amount to a deal-breaker, and Herskowitz agrees. But in any case, the auction house's ardor quickly cooled, and concerns about ownership claims -- if not Newman's, then those of possible third parties -- were at the heart of the sudden turnabout.

Grano remembers a call from a Butterfield's attorney, who suggested that the title questions surrounding Barnum were more complicated than they initially appeared: "He said there was a rumor going around about a woman, someone's ex-wife, who was out there looking for a T. rex that supposedly belonged to her."

Boning up: Shaded areas of these diagrams show what portion of Barnum's skeleton was recovered.
Boning up: Shaded areas of these diagrams show what portion of Barnum's skeleton was recovered.
A close-up of one of the specimen's teeth.
A close-up of one of the specimen's teeth.

The day after he found the T. rex, Leon Theisen drove back to the site. This time he brought his old friend Peter Larson, the onetime owner of Sue, who confirmed that Theisen had indeed found pieces of a Tyrannosaurus rex. He also brought global-positioning-system equipment to record the precise location of the find.

Theisen and Larson then went to the courthouse to figure out who owned the land. The place belonged to a ranching couple, Robert and Gail Stoddard. Theisen called Bob Stoddard and explained about the box of bones, the T. rex, the two men and his suspicions about trespassing. Stoddard said Randy and his friend didn't have permission to collect fossils on the ranch.

Theisen warned Stoddard that the men would probably be back, seeking to strike a deal to hunt fossils on his land while conveniently neglecting to mention their discovery. "Sure enough, one of these guys showed up with a contract for him to sign, and it made no mention of the fact that we'd already found a T. rex," Theisen says.

Stoddard didn't sign. Theisen lost track of the two trespassers after a heated conversation with Randy's partner, who accused him of "trying to screw us out of our T. rex." Over the next few days Theisen himself made several trips to see Bob Stoddard. Despite the awkward beginning, Theisen was keenly interested in excavating the T. rex. He brought Stoddard written proposals, urged him to check with other dealers about the matter, and asked if he could have the opportunity to match any competing offers the rancher might receive. Stoddard seemed interested and promised to keep in touch.

But Theisen never heard from Stoddard again. From other people in the business, he soon learned that another South Dakota fossil hunter, Japh Boyce, was digging that particular T. rex.

Theisen didn't know what kind of deal Boyce had made with Stoddard. Months later, though, he discovered that the T. rex had apparently been spoken for even before it was found. That revelation came to him as the result of a chance encounter at the Denver Gem and Mineral Show, a show Theisen regularly attended as an exhibitor.

"There was this -- I'll hold back on the adjective -- this fellow walking down the aisle, with entourage in tow," Theisen recalls. "He was waving his arms in the air and saying, 'I can see it now: John Bolan Presents...T. rex!' So I knew who he was, but he didn't know who I was."

Theisen had heard about Bolan through the grapevine. He was said to be an investment banker from California and an "armchair" fossil collector who paid other people to do the digging and the prep work. He also had a ranch in eastern Wyoming, next door to Stoddard's place, and had hired Japh Boyce to prepare specimens for him.

Bolan stopped at Theisen's table to admire his fossils. After some conversation, Bolan realized that he was talking to the man who'd found the T. rex on his friend Stoddard's ranch. According to Theisen, Bolan started to needle him about the box of bones he'd bought from the trespassers and his efforts to persuade Stoddard to let him excavate the T. rex.

"He came within a heartbeat of getting his pompous ass bounced out of my room," Theisen says. "He told me that he'd already had a previous agreement with Bob to collect the fossils on his land, so there was never a chance that I was going to get to dig that T. rex. That clued me in that Bob Stoddard had wasted my time, writing up proposals and all that crap. He didn't mind wasting my time to get information that he could use."

After months of conference calls, demand letters and consultations with experts, the Ty Rex investors managed to put together pieces of the story regarding their acquisition's troubled past and current prospects. But some of the pieces were still missing, and the story kept changing.

Not everything about the fossil business is written in stone. The investors couldn't be quite sure what it was they'd bought or what its scientific or commercial value might be; it all depended on who you asked.

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