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Famed Montana fossil hunter to admit to dinosaur crimes

Matthew Brown
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado
** FILE ** In this July 22, 2005 file photo Nate Murphy, curator of paleontology for the Judith River Dinosaur Institute, brushes debris from a newly discovered dinosaur skull in the foothills of the Little Snowy Mountains. (AP Photo/The Billings Gazette, James Woodcock, File)
AP | The Gazette

BILLINGS, Mont. ” A Montana paleontologist whose past discoveries brought widespread acclaim intends to plead guilty to stealing dinosaur bones from federal land, in a case that highlights the illicit trade in rare fossils.

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. He rose to fame with his 2000 discovery of a mummified, 77-million-year-old duckbilled hadrosaur known as Leonardo, considered the world’s best preserved dinosaur.

But after previously denying wrongdoing, court documents show Murphy has reached a plea deal on a federal charge that he stole bones from public land near Malta. He faced up to 10 years in prison if the case had gone to trial in early April.

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.

While it’s legal to take and sell bones from private property, federal law generally prevents their removal 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.

Murphy’s plea agreement comes 10 days after he pleaded guilty 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.

Earlier this week, Murphy told a reporter for The Associated Press that he’s anxious to tell his side of the story on both the state and federal cases.

His attorney, Michael Moses of Billings, said Thursday that will have to wait until the federal plea agreement is accepted by U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon in Great Falls.

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

He left the museum shortly after the Montana Division of Criminal Investigation and the federal Bureau of Land Management began investigating his activities.

“He’s devoted his life to that Malta museum,” Moses said of his client. “We’ve entered into plea agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and we are going to make an appearance before the court to change our plea. At that point in time we’ll be in a position to make a statement.”

In charging Murphy with theft of government property, federal prosecutors said in January that he stole bones from Bureau of Land Management property near Malta between August 2006 and August 2007. Prosecutors have yet to reveal how many bones were taken and what dinosaurs they came from.

Jessica Fehr, the assistant U.S. attorney handling the case, declined comment Thursday.

Murphy’s for-profit Judith River Dinosaur Institute, founded in 1993, gives amateur enthusiasts the chance to participate in weeklong fossil expeditions on private land, for $1,695 a person. The company’s six-member staff includes Murphy’s son, Matt.

It was during a 2000 expedition that team members discovered Leonardo, a 22-feet-long, two-ton hadrosaur known as a brachylophosaurus. Excavated in 2001, Leonardo’s skin and even some of its internal organs were still discernible, offering a scientific bonanza for researchers.

Currently on loan to the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences, the dinosaur landed on the cover of Newsweek and was the subject of a Discovery Channel documentary.

Public interest in dinosaurs has steadily driven up the prices collectors are willing to pay for well-preserved specimens, private fossil dealers and paleontologists who track their trade say.

This weekend, a nine-foot long, 150 million year old dryosaurus from private land in Wyoming goes up for auction in New York through the I.M. Chait Gallery. It is projected to sell for up to $500,000. Such demand has fueled what authorities describe as a growing and hard-to-police black market.

Josh Chait defended his gallery’s dinosaur sales, saying they create a financial incentive for exploration that can lead to groundbreaking discoveries.

He said expert consultants vet his gallery’s offerings to make sure they were acquired legally. But Chait acknowledged the unscrupulous dealers keep coming.

“A lot of people approach us with stuff that doesn’t seem to be on the up and up,” he said. “We don’t even touch them.”

There are no federal laws that directly address paleontological theft, but that could soon change.

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


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