Skeletons in Their Closet

"I call it the gargoyle," says Scott Stone, owner and sole proprietor of the Stone Fossil Co. of Frontier, Wyoming. "It's one of the most incredible finds ever. I mean, it's a fifty-million-year-old gargoyle."
Stone has never seen the piece, but, like many others, he has heard about it. He constructs the ancient remains from someone else's memory: "It's about eighteen inches tall and walks on its hind legs. It's got legs like a cat, a really heavy cat. And a lizard body and the head of a baboon! It's got wing flaps that it used to fly through the trees, and short, stubby front appendages. And big teeth, lots of teeth."

Naturally, Stone adds, the skeleton is highly coveted. "The minute the Smithsonian saw it, they wanted it," he says. "They offered $100,000. Of course, that's a pittance. I'm trying to sell it for $3 million. But it's worth many, many times that. The thing belongs in a museum. But, you know, we're commercial collectors."

Eileen Wade, a Rock Springs, Wyoming, grandmother with a round, cheerful face, confirms her family's find. "It's in a bank vault," she explains. Yes, the Smithsonian did seem rather interested at one time. And so did that scientist from the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. And the two men who made the trip from the Denver Museum of Natural History.

The prices being tossed around have been inflated, Wade adds, but that's no surprise; the tight community of commercial fossil collectors is a gossipy, hopeful lot. Still, a sale price in the tens of thousands of dollars certainly would not be out of line.

Wade sighs. Wouldn't it be pleasant if that was all there was to it? A nice retired couple unearths a valuable fossil. After a furious bidding war between museums and collectors, they cash in, deserving winners of a generous paleontological lottery. Sadly, it's far more complicated than that--certainly complicated enough to make Wade wonder about the wisdom of disturbing old bones.

The story really starts about forty years ago, when the Wades--Eileen and her husband, Doran--first developed what was to become a lifelong passion for rocks and fossils. The years passed, and they instilled their fascination with extinct life in their two sons, Robert and Brian.

Eventually, it came to seem like the most natural thing in the world for the family to turn its hobby into a vocation. So in 1990, when Doran retired from the local utility company, the Wades leased a quarry from a nearby rancher. They bulldozed off the top 25 feet of the earth's crust and started prospecting for prehistoric treasures. It was in that very southwestern Wyoming quarry, nearly four years ago now, that Brian unearthed the gargoyle, which Eileen prefers to call simply "the mammal."

"His truck was parked down in the hole, and there was a half-mile steep slope up to where we were," she recalls. "Well, he ran up that entire slope and just plain forgot about his truck. That's how excited he was."

It was a moment--uncovering a piece of prehistory never seen by anyone else--that represents what fossil-prospecting is all about. Eileen pauses in her recollections. Since then, of course, things haven't worked out so well for the Wades.

The quarry was a financial disaster. Eileen figures she and Doran lost about $85,000 of their retirement nest egg trying to run the damn thing honorably. But there are just so many thieves in the business trying to cash in on prehistoric gold, and the trips to the fossil and gem shows across the West got so expensive that it was as if they were pouring money into the wide holes they opened in the earth.

From there it only got worse. Last summer, somehow, Eileen, Doran and Brian found themselves standing in front of a jury in U.S. District Court in Cheyenne, waiting to hear their fate after being charged with swiping fossils from public lands. Eileen and Doran were lucky and got out of the jam. Brian wasn't. He was ordered to spend fourteen months in the federal penitentiary in Englewood.

And if all that wasn't stressful enough, family troubles long buried under hardened layers of civility began to surface. The Wades suspect that one of the government's key sources of inside information in its case against them was brother Robert, who, they say, willingly snitched on Brian and his parents. Eileen, a forgiving type, has begun speaking to her son again. Doran still refuses. "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me," he says before closing the subject with a snap.

But at least the Wades still have the mammal, the sale of which, Eileen says, will someday lift them out of debt and carry them to that farm they've wanted to buy for so long. In the meantime, it turns out, the fossil is available for inspection. "I only tell people I keep it in a bank deposit box because I want them to think we don't have it here," Eileen confides. "I guess you can see it."

Operation Rock Fish was pretty much Sergeant Steve Rogers's idea. "I'm a pilot for the Lincoln County Sheriff's Department," he explains. "And back in 1991 or '92, while out on ordinary patrol, I began noticing these giant holes in the ground. I thought, 'That's kind of weird.' So I got with a federal Bureau of Land Management ranger on the ground. And we discovered it was the result of fossil poachers."

Convinced that Wyoming was in the grip of a fossil-poaching epidemic, Rogers began recruiting other government agencies to join the fight. The idea of saving dinosaurs captured the imagination of many law enforcement types, and in the past five years Rogers has worked with the BLM, the FBI, the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Wyoming National Guard, the Wyoming Land Board, the state police and the U.S. Attorney's office. Rogers called the campaign Operation Rock Fish, after the most common fossils buried in the area's distinctive soil.

For anyone interested in stealing fossils, southwestern Wyoming is an excellent place to start. The Green River Formation is one of the most concentrated veins of fossils in the world. Created fifty million years ago when three great lakes receded from what is now Wyoming, Utah and northwestern Colorado, the formation today is a vast dirt lasagne made up of layers of laminated limestone, mudstone and volcanic ash, and packed with traces of ancient life. Most of the fossils are fish, although plants, a few birds, snails, turtles, crocodiles and one bat have been uncovered, too.

Paleontologists became aware of the area's importance early on, and the Green River Formation has been studied by scientists and researchers since about 1870. It wasn't too long after that that rock and fossil enthusiasts began showing up. The commercial prospectors dug their own quarries, mining the area for treasures they could later sell to private collectors and museums.

The Green River Formation remains a mecca for rock hounds. It is home to Fossil Butte National Monument, a twenty-year-old protected park of Hush-Puppy-colored buttes, scrub sagebrush and desert shrubs. Kemmerer, the closest town, lies about 25 miles east of the Utah border. It is lined with rock shops hawking local fossils for sale, and each summer the town hosts the Fossil Festival in Herschler Triangle Park.

Despite the area's long history of prehistoric prospecting, the rules covering who can dig fossils from public lands have recently been reinterpreted. Rogers and his platoon of government agencies began cracking down on people who scavenge fossils off federal property only within the past five years. Until then, many collectors worked without any attention from the government; at times they actually enjoyed the help of local rangers. So the anti-fossiling push caught many people off guard.

Gael Hebdon has been in the fossil-digging business for two decades, ever since she quit her job in the Carter White House and escaped to western Wyoming. She took the first work she could find, as a sheepherder for a man who fossiled on the side--a hobby shared by nearly everyone in the area. She later married her boss. The Hebdons gave up on the sheep, but they now mine several quarries full-time.

"Up until very recently, digging fossils on public land was allowed," Gael explains. "The Green River Formation has been written up in guides and rock-hounding books as a place where people can go to dig. People have been doing it for years and years because their fathers and grandfathers did it. And the government never did anything about it."

Now the authorities appear to be making up for lost time, and Operation Rock Fish has been aggressive in its pursuit of suspected poachers. In addition to the time and effort of dozens of state and federal agents, Sergeant Rogers has called in helicopters and airplanes to assist him. He has organized stake-outs, orchestrated stings and employed sophisticated police tools such as motion-detectors and video cameras to bring the criminals to justice.

"We have devoted hundreds and hundreds of hours to this--gathering intelligence, establishing informants, tracking down suspects," Rogers says.

The cases are complicated and the investigations unlike any other police work Rogers had done. "I'll tell you what," he says. "I wish I had listened a whole lot better in college geology." Once investigators track down a fossil that they suspect is illegal, they must then try to match it to the soils found on federal lands. Thanks largely to the recent push against commercial fossilers, the FBI now employs its own sedimentologist.

"The small private collector is not our target here," Rogers continues. "We're looking for the illegal commercial collector. The illegal commercial fossil business is a multi-million-dollar business. We've tracked stolen fossils to twelve different countries."

All of this activity in a place better known for cattle than crime has made Rogers himself something of a celebrity. He has been the subject of newspaper and magazine articles. Two months ago he appeared on national television as the star of a National Geographic Explorer documentary about fossil poaching.

Using hidden cameras, the show followed Rogers from his office to a Tucson fossil-buying show, then back to Kemmerer. The climax of the film occurred in a Cheyenne parking lot, where, in a carefully orchestrated sting attended by an assistant United States attorney, the sergeant confronted a suspected poacher after the man delivered a beautiful mounted stingray fossil that Rogers had arranged to buy. "It's like a child returning home," Rogers said upon recovering the piece.

Tall, ramrod straight and sporting the stern and chiseled features that all pilots seem to have, Rogers was very photogenic. Unfortunately, the show was a sham.

Understanding fossil regulations can be as difficult as unearthing the old bones themselves. Much of the confusion stems from the fact that there is no federal law specifically prohibiting their collection. As a result, local law enforcement attention to the matter varies from place to place, depending on local officers' interest in the matter.

Because of the lack of laws, government agents trying to stop commercial fossilers have had to employ a handful of peripheral statutes to get their men--the Antiquities Act of 1906, for example, and other rules that prohibit the stealing of federal property.

Other legal ruts can make prosecution a bumpy ride. For instance: When it comes to property rights, are fossils included in a landowner's surface rights? Or should they be considered minerals?

This is not just some hypothetical brainteaser chewed over by real estate agents between showings. In 1991 a federal mining bureaucrat was busted in western Wyoming with an alligator fossil he'd dug from private land. There was no question he didn't have permission to be there. But prosecutors found themselves with a problem: Who was the victim? Was it the Rock Springs Grazing Association, which owned the surface rights to the land? Or was it Union Pacific Railroad, which owned the mineral rights?

The man pleaded guilty, and the grazing association and the railroad took joint ownership of the fossil. Eventually the alligator was handed over to the Western Wyoming Community College's dinosaur display--as a joint bequest. The question of who owns the rights to the fossil remains unanswered.

And then there are basic ethics. The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, a mostly academic organization, has taken a hard line toward fossil ownership. Its members contend that fossils and ancient bones are our national heritage and belong to all of us--but that only Ph.D.s at reputable research institutes may dig them up and ponder their significance.

In its recent crackdown on suspected poachers, the government seems to have seconded this position--that fossils buried on federal lands are a sacred public trust. Such delicate, nonrenewable resources as fossils, they say, should not be disturbed, and particularly not by people trying to make a buck.

Commercial hunters scoff at this. They believe that fossils are enjoyed by people only when they are out of the ground and visible, and that the more people there are hunting fossils, the more fossils there will be to admire. They point out that some of the prehistoric exhibits on display today in museums were uncovered by commercial diggers. Besides, they add, more unexcavated fossils are destroyed in a single rainstorm than are lost to all the country's for-profit fossil hunters put together in a year.

"In South Dakota, we can kick through vertebrates laying like cobwebs on the shale," says Patrick Duffy, a Rapid City attorney who recently represented a dinosaur-poaching suspect. "They're just lying there--but not for long. We just had a big rainstorm here the other day, and I can guarantee you that it destroyed thousands and thousands of fossils. The idea that somehow the government's activities are protecting these fossils is preposterous. Their policy of restricting digging to a few Ph.D.s has resulted in the mass destruction of the very thing these people profess to hold sacred."

It also has not escaped the commercial diggers' notice that the federal agencies suddenly professing to hold their noses at the idea of private profit from a scarce public resource have a peculiar history. They are the same branches of government that lease grazing rights to ranchers for below market value, sell mining rights to private companies for a fraction of their worth and have permitted old-growth logging on federal lands for prices that would make Paul Bunyan blush.

Between the hardliners on both edges of the issue, most people agree that some commercial fossiling is okay. Wyoming, for instance, provides a nod to the existence of for-profit diggers, who play a role in the state's economy. Diggers must purchase a permit and turn over a percentage of every sale of a fossil found on state land. While the laws themselves are relatively permissive, the penalty for violations is extreme: Up to ten years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Still, even in Wyoming, which likes to think of itself as the most practical of states when it comes to prehistoric remains, fossil policy doesn't always make a lot of sense. The state law also requires commercial diggers who happen across a rare or unusual find on Wyoming land to relinquish it to the state. Such exceptional fossils, lawmakers reasoned, need to be held in public trust for all residents and studied for the greater good.

Although the program essentially relies on the honor system, to date dozens of uncommon finds have been surrendered. At first the state designated the University of Wyoming at Laramie as the repository of the public's fossils. Several years ago, however, the university, which had been storing the artifacts in a basement room, concluded it didn't have the resources to curate them and so turned the job over to the state geological survey. For the past three years, the fossils have been stored on shelves in a dark room of a state office building, out of sight of everyone. A department spokesman says he hopes the state legislature will someday provide them with enough money to display the finds, but adds that he doesn't expect that to happen anytime soon.

Doran and Eileen Wade live on the western edge of Rock Springs. Their neighborhood spreads toward the buttes in a tide of indistinguishable mobile and prefab homes, junker cars and piles of furniture bleached colorless by years of weathering. The Wade house, however, stands out because of its porch.

Built by Eileen over the course of three years, it is a beautiful enclosed foyer constructed of local rocks, many of them containing the imprint of fossils. A delicate saballitis palm graces one rock near the cornerstone; another section of the wall contains a small fish. "Rocks is something I've done forever," says Eileen.

Inside the cluttered house, more fossils hang on the walls. These have been mounted on flat plaster squares. The imprint of a relatively rare garfish, which looks like a flattened piece of dried fish, hangs by the dining room table. A small mounted stingray leaned against the fireplace; recently, one of the Wades' grandchildren broke it.

"To me," Doran says, gazing at his collection, "they're beautiful. They tell me what life was like."

Born in Oregon, Doran moved to Denver in the 1950s, where he easily fed his rock-hounding habit. He discovered petrified leaf imprints in the old Robinson Clay Mine, near Golden, including a giant palm that spread like a peacock plume along a rock face. For their vacations, he and Eileen would drive the seven-hour trip to the Green River Formation. They moved to Rock Springs for good in 1975.

"When we moved to Wyoming, every rock club you joined took you fossil hunting," Eileen recalls. "Everybody and their brother hunts fossils here. Some of it was on private land, but a lot of it was on public land. Nobody cared. The BLM would even tell you where the fossils were."

In the years leading up to Doran's retirement, the Wades fed their passion by signing on to dig in a private quarry outside Kemmerer. Like rock sharecroppers, they split any of the common fish fossils they found with the property's lease-holder. He got rare finds, for which the Wades were supposed to receive a bonus but, it seemed, never did.

Tired of working for someone else, in August 1990, the month Doran retired, the Wades signed a three-year lease for their own 160-acre dig site. They had high hopes.

"The first year we thought we would do just great," recalls Eileen.
"Ooh, boy, that was a dream," Doran adds.
"We thought we'd add to our retirement income and buy a farm," Eileen continues. "We kept thinking, 'Next year we'll make it. Next year.'"

Despite the stories of million-dollar sales that race through every fossil show, however, very few people make a living selling fossils. Each summer the Wades dug fossils and spent dozens of hours preparing them. Each fall they'd attend the big shows in Arizona, where they'd camp out for a month. And at the end of each year, they'd balance their books and discover they'd barely broken even.

Doran fetches a painstakingly prepared plate, a prehistoric tableau. In the center is a 21-inch-long phareodus, its body curved into a graceful arc, its bones in sharp relief. A knightia, another fish, swims close to its tail. The plate also contains a third fish, a diplomystus, below the phareodus.

"This plate would sell for $2,500 to $3,000 at a fossil shop," says Doran. "But we couldn't sell it for $300 at the fossil shows.

"The big myth in fossil hunting," he continues, "is that there is big money to be made. But there is no way you can make what people say."

Still, there were some bright spots. Brian seemed to have a knack for finding fossils--like the mammal, which he discovered in July 1993. "I was digging in the quarry, throwing the tailings behind me," he recalls from his current home in the federal pen in Englewood.

"I had split off the top of this rock, about two inches thick and one and a half feet square, and I saw the indentation. At first I thought it was a bird. So I turned around to the tailings pile and found the top section of the rock. It had broken in pieces, so I put it back together. We took it to the local hospital to have it X-rayed, to see what was left in the rock." The shadowy pictures showed the nearly complete skeletal remains of a small prehistoric mammal--a highly unusual find, particularly for an area that was once an ancient lake bed.

By the time their lease on the quarry ran out, the Wades calculated they'd lost more than $80,000. After paying the lease and renting a bulldozer to scrape off the topsoil layers, much of their retirement fund was gone.

But they still had the bug. So in the summer of 1995, the Wades, along with some friends who also loved digging fossils, began seeking a permit to dig on a piece of state land near 18 Mile Canyon, about forty miles north of Rock Springs. "We're not drinkers, we're doers," Eileen explains. "We like having something to do. I know it sounds stupid. But we're ambitious, active people." In what would later become an important point during the Wades' criminal trial, the state land they hoped to lease lay adjacent to federal BLM property.

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.

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."

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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