September 10, 2008
Paleontologist accused of stealing fossil
By KIM SKORNOGOSKI
Tribune Staff Writer
Nate Murphy, the paleontologist who discovered several of Malta's most famous fossils, including the dinosaur mummy Leonardo, was charged Tuesday in Phillips County with stealing a turkey-sized raptor fossil.
The result of a yearlong investigation, state prosecutors allege that Murphy lied about where the raptor was found in order to sell replicas of the fossil, which is estimated to be worth between $150,000 and $400,000.
Murphy was the director of paleontology with the Dinosaur Field Station in Malta for 15 years before resigning July 1, 2007 — one month after the Montana Division of Criminal Investigations, the FBI and the Bureau of Land Management began their investigation.
"I could be a millionaire now if I had the intention of selling those specimens I've been collecting for years," Murphy said Tuesday. "I do what I love to do. It's never been about money."
Since 1993, Murphy has run a paleo-outfitting business, taking crews of amateur diggers to ranches outside Malta and Grass Range looking for dinosaur bones.
In those years, he found a new species of long-necked dinosaur near Grass Range, a family of Stegosauruses near Malta and three duckbills — which now share a home at Malta's new Great Plains Dinosaur Museum.
His most amazing find was Leonardo, considered the world's best-preserved dinosaur, complete with organs, skin and tissue that could unlock mysteries dating back 77 million years. The fossil graced the cover of Newsweek and National Geographic and is the star of an hourlong documentary debuting Sunday on the Discovery Channel.
As a result of the investigation, just who owned those fossils came into question. Murphy had a long-standing arrangement with the Hammond family to dig on their property about 26 miles north of Malta.
According to the affidavit charging Murphy, he agreed to report all significant finds to the Hammonds before excavating or removing them, and that all dinosaurs would be owned 50 percent by the Hammonds and 50 percent by Murphy's Dinosaur Field Institute.
"We basically trust people and our intentions were always to keep the dinosaurs in Phillips County," Howard Hammond said. "We thought that was Nate's intention, too. It's just a difficult situation."
The institute is Murphy's private business, which operated out of the former Dinosaur Field Station. However, the field station was funded by the separate nonprofit Judith River Dinosaur Foundation.
With the business and nonprofit so similarly named, it became unclear to the Hammonds and others just what was owned by Murphy and what was owned by the foundation.
With the investigation looming, Murphy agreed to sign over his 50 percent ownership of the fossils to the nonprofit foundation.
Murphy said the allegations that he stole the raptor are a misunderstanding. He said his son found the turkey-sized dinosaur underneath a fossilized turtle that he didn't realize was even there.
He chose not to tell the Hammonds about it, because he worried that as a result of the high-profile finds of their land they would want to "put a price tag on every specimen we found."
But according to court documents, Murphy first tried to hide the raptor's discovery from other paleontologists, partners and the Hammonds, and then lied about where it was found, saying he excavated it from a site near Saco.
Court documents allege that Murphy, therefore, claimed sole ownership of the raptor and didn't have to share profits or control with the Hammonds.
The investigation revealed that the fossil was actually discovered in 2002 by Mark Thompson, who volunteered to dig with Murphy for two summers. Thompson, who lives in Australia, told investigators that Murphy asked him not to bring up the discovery to the Hammonds.
Because the bones are so small, finding a raptor so well-preserved is rare. The fossil was complete with parts of fingers, the back of the skull, a fully articulated spine and the brain case.
In 2006, Murphy went back to excavate the raptor and sent the fossil to the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research in South Dakota.
Murphy signed an agreement with the Black Hills Institute to loan the raptor fossil for the purpose of making molds and casts with Murphy's Judith River Dinosaur Institute, making 20 percent in royalties off the sales of all cast specimens.
It wasn't until Murphy planned to reveal the raptor at Malta's Wine and Dino Days in June 2007 that Bakker and others began asking questions about the raptor's origin and about the ownership of Leonardo and the other fossil finds.
"I wished we had done it differently," Murphy said. "The specimen was cataloged. There was no attempt to abscond with it or sell it. My record speaks for itself.
"I think what's happened is because of the fact that I've become very high-profile over the years. People were out to get me."
Murphy said he has never sold fossils. However, his son Matt Murphy, who digs with him, has sold small fossils as a hobby, but never made a major profit from it, he said.
"It's ridiculous the things that have been said. I'm not trying to hide anything," he said.
However, Murphy's partner in the Leonardo Project LLC, Joe Iacuzzo, said he discovered Murphy and his son sold several fossils on the Internet and at dinosaur conventions.
"We will never know how long he's been selling dinosaurs and if what he sold was scientifically significant," Iacuzzo said.
The allegations shocked many scientists, including Bynum-area paleontologist David Trexler, who wrote much of the study of Leonardo and worked with Murphy on several digs.
Trexler and Murphy even set up dinosaur dig ethics standards for museums like the ones in Malta and Bynum that are part of the Montana Dinosaur Trail.
"This really blindsided me," Trexler said. "I keep thinking that there should have been something that one of us should have picked up on that would have stopped the damage from going on for so long."
The U.S. Attorney's Office would not comment on the federal investigation, including if any federal charges would be filed against Murphy.
Sue Frary, the director of programs and exhibits at the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum, said the foundation fully cooperated with investigators and worked to quickly respond to secure ownership of the Malta dinosaurs, including Leonardo.
Frary did field work with Murphy dating back to 2002 and is one of the founding members of the nonprofit foundation. She said a team of paleontologists are now in the area and are working to track down GPS coordinates of all the specimens at the museum.
"The focus is the fossils," she said Tuesday. "The focus is the museum here and what that can do economically for Malta, for the Hi-Line and for northeastern Montana."
The foundation expects to double the number of digs next year, and Frary is busy planning new exhibits and educational programs to roll out this winter.
Bakker, who is overseeing a major new exhibit featuring Leonardo at the Houston museum, said none of the allegations against Murphy affect the scientific study of the mummified duckbill.
"Leonardo has always been examined with the best science," he said.
Head of the Montana Division of Criminal Investigation John Strandell said until the case is resolved, the raptor remains in state custody as evidence. Eventually, the raptor will be returned to its owner, Bruce Bruckner, who leases land to the Hammonds.
"We realize without Nate that all of these wonderful fossils would probably still be in the ground," Howard Hammond said. "The rest of the world wouldn't have the opportunity to know about it.
"Nate's made some real poor decisions, and we actually feel a little betrayed."