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The Bust Was a Bust

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.

In addition to being obtained legally, the stingray, a relatively common find, was of little interest to academic researchers. When Bacchia purchased it from the Hebdons, the "tail and stinger were missing and therefore totally restored," the Italian collector wrote in a letter to Sergeant Rogers in September 1996, after he'd learned that the piece had been confiscated. "This fact removed every scientific value of the item, which remains only a nice display item."

Bacchia's letter was written six months before "Thieves of Time" aired, but he says he never heard back from Rogers. Gael Hebdon says she also called the Lincoln County Sheriff's Department in February and offered to swear that the stingray had been purchased from her legally. She, too, never got a response. Nor was she told that the fossil would be featured on a National Geographic documentary.

The show came as a surprise to Glenn Rockers, too. He had first met Rogers at the Tucson fossil show. Rogers had set up a fake dealership out of Salt Lake City; Rockers was trying to sell Bacchia's stingray for about $4,000. He got no takers at first, but after the show, Rogers offered to buy the piece. The men agreed to meet in a Cheyenne parking lot for the exchange.

That's where Rockers was busted by Rogers and a lawyer from the state attorney general's office. ("I didn't know much about the case," recalls Pat Seals, the assistant AG. "Rogers just said he needed some backup. That was the last I heard of it.") Rockers was taken to an office, where he says he was questioned by Rogers about the stingray and released.

"'The last thing I want to do is embarrass a legitimate businessman,'" Rockers recalls Rogers saying.

That was the last Rockers heard of the incident until a friend called one night in March and said, "You ought to check out channel so-and-so." When Rockers turned on the TV, there he was, being arrested in front of a national audience as a fossil poacher.

Now, more than fourteen months after the "bust," Rockers says he has heard nothing from Rogers or anyone else in the Lincoln County Sheriff's Department. Neither he nor Bacchia has been charged with any crime. The stingray remains in the possession of the police.

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