Friday, March 20, 2009

Montana Fossil Hunter Pleads Guilty to Theft

From Yahoo! News

A famed paleontologist who discovered the world's best preserved dinosaur intends to plead guilty to stealing dinosaur bones from federal land.

The change of plea motion from Nathan Murphy follows state and federal investigations into his alleged attempts to cash in on the highly lucrative fossil market.

Murphy, 51, is a self-taught dinosaur expert who spent much of the last two decades searching for bones in central Montana's Hell Creek formation — a rocky badlands once stalked by the fearsome tyrannosaurus rex. In 2000, he famously discovered a mummified, 77-million-year-old duckbilled hadrosaur known as Leonardo, considered the best preserved in the world.
But after previously denying wrongdoing, court documents filed Wednesday show Murphy has reached a plea deal on a federal charge that he stole bones from public land near Malta. Prosecutors have not disclosed how many were taken.

He faced up to 10 years in prison if convicted.

Murphy's case offers a rare glimpse into the illicit underside of paleontology, in which wealthy collectors are willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for rare or unusual specimens. This weekend, a 150-million-year-old dryosaurus fossil taken from private land in Wyoming is expected to be auctioned for up to $500,000 in New York through the I.M. Chait Gallery.
Josh Chait, who runs the gallery, said the sales create financial incentives for exploration that can lead to groundbreaking discoveries.

Federal law generally prevents the removal of bones from public lands without a research permit. But the remoteness of many prime fossil grounds in Utah, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and other western states makes enforcement difficult.

"There's probably somebody out stealing fossils from federal land in Montana today, and we don't know about it because there's not enough law enforcement to patrol all of these sites," said Martin McAllister, a private archaeological investigator from Missoula.

A sweeping public lands bill approved Thursday by the U.S. Senate contains penalties that specifically target fossil theft from federal land, which paleontologists have sought for years. The bill now heads to the House of Representatives for final action.

Murphy also pleaded guilty this month in state court to stealing a raptor fossil from private land and trying to cash in on molds from the specimen. Casts made from those molds could have brought in from $150,000 to $400,000...

Murphy runs a business in Billings that takes paying customers on weeklong dinosaur excavation expeditions. He was the director of paleontology at the Dinosaur Field Station in Malta for 15 years before resigning in July 2007.


Jon said...

I'd let him go. He's bringing in great fossils. But no, the government owns everything and wants a piece of the action. Here's a guy bringing in valuable finds from piles of dirt nobody cares about. We're learning things and can potentially learn more. So what if he's motivated by profit. If that encourages more people to make important discoveries, then what's wrong with that?

As a citizen I guess I'm the owner of this federal land partly. Doesn't bother me. And demanding permits to allow people to dig around in remote, unexplored areas is silly. When are they going to demand a permit to wipe your own ass?

Jon said...

One other point. Facing 10 yrs in prison? You know we have almost 2.5 million people in this country in prison right now. That's like 1 out of every 100 people. China, with 4x our population, has 500,000 people in prison. Supposedly repressive China. Did Saddam put so many people in prison? This is crazy.

AIGBusted said...

I agree, I don't think I would sentence to anything near ten years.