Fossil hunter digs up more controversy
By KIM SKORNOGOSKI
Great Falls Tribune Staff Writer
"This summer, fossil hunter Nate Murphy and his crew carefully unearthed three stegosaurus skeletons discovered on a ranch near Grass Range.
Unlike his past dinosaur digs — including the one that unearthed Malta's famed mummy duckbill, Leonardo — Murphy's finds aren't destined for a Montana museum.
The nonprofit Judith River Dinosaur Foundation, which is affiliated with Malta's new Great Plains Dinosaur Museum, cut ties with Murphy in July 2007, after state and federal agents began investigating him for allegedly stealing dinosaurs. Last month, he was charged in Phillips County District Court with stealing a turkey-sized raptor.
However, through his private company, the Judith River Dinosaur Institute, Murphy continues to recruit volunteer scientists along with amateur fossil fans who shell out $1,600 each to spend a week digging by his side.
Some paleontologists fear that he is drawing a fuzzy line with the name of his company. They say it could mislead private landowners who allow fossil hunters on their property with the intent that any dinosaurs discovered be displayed in a Montana museum.
"I think a lot of people are still confused," said Bob Bakker, paleontologist and curator of the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences, which currently hosts Leonardo. "You can't continue to have a for-profit operation with the smokescreen of a nonprofit organization.
"Good-hearted people are donating their time and pay a fee for the privilege of digging — that's reprehensible to have a name like that. There's nothing wrong with running a commercial operation, but they have to be very clear about what they do," Bakker added.
Murphy says his intention always is to keep his finds in Montana.
He recently bought a warehouse in Billings and is working to create a new Dino Lab, much like the converted garage he operated at the Dinosaur Field Station in Malta. Murphy said his plan is to eventually keep the stegosaurus finds there.
Grass Range rancher David Hein, whose family owns the land where the stegosaurus skeletons were found, wouldn't detail his arrangement with Murphy, but said he is confident the dinosaurs will stay in the state.
"We have found Nate to be very honest and honorable in all his dealings with us," Hein said. "We consider him a friend."
Malta ranchers JoAnn and Howard Hammond had similar opinions of Murphy for the 16 years he brought dig crews onto their land. Once they learned of the criminal allegations, the Hammonds betrayed, they said, and tried to warn other landowners.
Grass Range rancher Merril Klakken said the Hammonds' worries didn't concern him, so he let Murphy dig on his land in the summer.
"When we made the agreement, the bones were to go to the Judith River Foundation in Malta and remain there," Klakken said. "Now, when we saw him this summer, Nate said he had a warehouse lined up in Billings to take these bones to. I don't know what's going to happen."
The fossils found on Klakken's property are stored in his shed, but they belong to Murphy by contract. Klakken will get 10 percent of any money made from replicas.
Sue Frary, the director of programs and exhibits at the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum, said any claims that fossils found by Murphy and his commercial customers will go to Malta are false.
"We would not accept any fossils from him, nor do we have any affiliation with him," she said. "We do realize that he's continuing his dig programs, but we have no idea where those fossils are going."
In the current criminal case, prosecutors allege that Murphy lied about where he found a rare raptor, which is estimated to be worth between $150,000 and $400,000.
Prosecutors say Murphy told paleontologists two stories: first, that he found the raptor in Saco and, later, that it was hidden under a fossilized turtle found on the Hammonds' land and was discovered in the lab.
The original location of the raptor fossil is important because, in the United States, whoever owns the land, owns the dinosaur.
Court documents state that Murphy shipped the raptor to the Black Hills Institute in South Dakota to have molds and casts made.
Bakker said commercial sellers can make far more money from replicas than from selling the original fossils.
On his company's Web site, Murphy writes that he is working to create a new nonprofit organization, the Little Snowy Mountain Dinosaur Project, where people could send tax deductible donations to get the new Dino Lab up and running.
"Because he was forced out of Malta after having done everything for those people up there, he's starting all over again," Hein said.
Most of Murphy's great finds draw crowds to Malta's new museum, which opened in June. The dinosaur that made him famous, the duckbill Leonardo, now stars in a year-long special exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences and is the subject of a Discovery Channel documentary.
Leonardo is considered the world's best preserved dinosaur because his skin and organs — even his last meal — are intact. Scientists believe he could hold answers to questions about what the world was like 77 million years ago.
Murphy said Leonardo's fame made Murphy the target of paleontologists who questioned his credentials because he doesn't have a doctorate. It also made people start seeing dollar signs.
"I do what I love to do — it's never been about money," he said. "Even though, later on, other people put price tags on these dinosaurs, I've never cared about the money."
Depending on who's telling the story, Murphy either volunteered or was pushed to sign over his partial ownership of all the fossils found on the Hammonds' land from his private institute to the similarly named nonprofit foundation.
Murphy said he learned his lesson and now he specifies in his contracts with landowners before he begins digging that he has controlling interest in the specimens.
In dinosaur and ancient antiquity hotspots such as China, Egypt, Israel and Mongolia, any fossils or artifacts found belong to the people of the country.
Other countries such as Argentina are more of a free market, with dinosaur hunters and nonprofits battling in court to claim valuable finds.
While there isn't a state law dictating who owns fossils found in Montana, a federal judge has laid out the rules all paleontologists and commercial diggers must follow across the country.
A fierce court battle stemmed from the discovery of one of the largest Tyrannosaurus — and the most complete — ever discovered. It was named Sue after the amateur paleontologist who found it in 1990, in South Dakota's Hell Creek Formation....."
Now the story turns to Sue and that entire situation, which I would rather not relive, but I encourage you to read.
"A federal judge decided that whoever owns the land — be it the state, the federal government or a private party — owns whatever fossils are found in the ground.
Sue later sold at auction for nearly $8 million, opening the door to high-dollar dinosaur dealing.
Given the state and federal investigation of Murphy, Judith River Dinosaur Foundation board members feared court wrangling similar to that over sue could occur over Leonardo.
According to the court documents charging Murphy with stealing the turkey-sized raptor, he arranged with the Hammonds to equally split ownership of all discoveries on their property.
With the investigation looming, the foundation scrambled to switch ownership of Leonardo and several other fossils from Murphy's company to the foundation.
"It was a bit like getting divorced, and the fear was that the fossil would get tied up in the divorce," said Joe Iacuzzo, Murphy's former business partner. "We heard wild estimates that Leonardo would sell for $1 million to $10 million."
While Leonardo is in Houston, the allegedly stolen raptor, which is considered evidence in the pending felony case, is being kept safe in a locked state evidence locker.
Though officials with the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office can't talk about an investigation until charges are filed, witnesses involved in the case say they believe the charges involving the raptor are just the beginning.
"It's not just the raptor, it was others too," Bakker said. "The federal investigation is much bigger."
Murphy first got tangled up with the law in 1994, when he found a hadrosaur brachylophosaurs, named Elvis, 35 miles north of Malta, on federal Bureau of Land Management property. With a storm rolling in, Murphy shored up the dirt above the exposed bones and covered the fossil until he could return with an official.
He was fined $500 for tampering with a historic specimen.
Montana paleontologists fear that landowners will be reluctant to allow scientists on their property to hunt for fossils because Murphy has long had a reputation as a respected fossil hunter who volunteers his time to discover and protect Montana's Jurassic jewels.
Bynum-area paleontologist David Trexler, whose family found Montana's other major dinosaur discovery known worldwide as Egg Mountain, considered Murphy a friend and compatriot in the mission to find and keep dinosaurs in the state.
Trexler and Murphy developed a code of ethics for professional and amateur diggers, hoping to guide fossil hunters to develop good relationships with landowners and follow responsible digging practices.
"He talked the talk and, to me and a lot of others, he seemed to walk the walk," Trexler said. "Come to find out, he set up the rules for everybody else."
Trexler and Bakker both advise landowners to check references and make sure that fossil hunters work for nonprofits before signing any contracts.
"It's sad, but the days of the handshake and you're as good as your word are going away," Trexler said. "I'm hoping that the focus will help landowners understand the differences between someone who says 'I'm a paleontologist and I want to collect dinosaurs,' and someone who says 'I can make you a whole bunch of money.'"
Trexler added that he hopes the charges and pending federal investigation of Murphy will encourage the Legislature and Montana's federal congressional delegation to license and regulate fossil hunting.
He also would like to see changes in the law to give states the first opportunity to buy fossils found on private land that are then put up for sale.
When Trexler first started in paleontology, two dinosaurs found in Montana could be seen in the state. He's made it his life's goal to build the Dinosaur Trail — a series of small-town museums dotting the Hi-Line — to benefit the communities where the dinosaurs were found.
It's the potential impact of Murphy's charges on the Dinosaur Trail and efforts to continue that work that worry him the most.
"I really, really worry about the damage," Trexler said. "I know the folks in Malta are not going to be hurt over the long term. But is this going to hurt the Dinosaur Trail? Is this going to offset the good that Leonardo is going to do? Is this going to lure more commercial diggers here?
"Obviously there are going to be repercussions. I just hope they're not too severe," he added."
Read the entire article here. Thanks to Russ for the heads up as the story continues to develop.