Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Honesty is the best policy

From the Great Falls Tribune:

September 10, 2008

Paleontologist accused of stealing fossil

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."



Anonymous said...

It's a very sad shame for even a famed paleontologist who discovered Leonardo to steal fossils just so he can sell it and satisfy his greed. That can really put a huge dent in paleontology and set a very bad example for others to follow. I sure do hope justice would teach him a lesson to never steal fossils again.

BTW: Both my blogs are dead. I've decided to merge them all into one big blog on a new server. So I hope you don't mind if you can update your blogroll once more by replacing the two dead links with this new address,

The Great Dinosaur Mystery and the Big Lie


Anonymous said...

I really don't know what to say. Really sucks how in recent years fossils have been shamelessly pawned off. I remember Colbert mentioned a triceratops skeleton that auctioned off in Paris for close to a million dollars. And it's especially painful to see Nate, who I remember reading about in newsweek, keeping a find like that under wraps in the hope of making money.

Anonymous said...

Well I thought a person is always innocent until proven guilty but those accusing him are seeming given credit as being the honest and wronged ones.

My feeling is that this is a frameup simple and plain but who knows how it will end. The claims by that group are a smokescreen and are all about gaining control of the mummy dinosaur.

Funny how the charges just happen to come out before the discovery channel story on Leonardo. I helped carry the turtle jacket out the week after it was field preped and the raptor was there and not known until December. Unfortunately as Nate claims things were not going well with the ranchers -- they really had always wanted to sell the dinosaurs so it was an unasy partnership. It sounds like the pot calling the kettle black to me.

I hope the truth comes out someday for Nates sake.

Here is the Billings Gazette article on it where more of what Nate has to say (rather than just the accusations) is found:

Malta man charged with stealing raptor fossil
By The Associated Press

GREAT FALLS - A Malta paleontologist who helped discover one of the world's best preserved dinosaurs has been charged with stealing a turkey-sized raptor fossil from land in the Malta area.

The charges were filed Tuesday in District Court in Phillips County.

State prosecutors allege Nate Murphy lied about where he found the raptor fossil in order to sell replicas of the fossil. The fossil's worth was estimated at between $150,000 and $400,000.

Prosecutors say the fossil was discovered in 2002 and recovered in 2006 without Murphy telling the landowner.

Murphy says the allegations that he stole the raptor are a "misunderstanding." He says the specimen was cataloged and there was no attempt to sell it.

ReBecca Hunt-Foster said...

I have updated your links CH. Thanks, I have been meaning to do that......

Thanks for reading everyone! Its nice to know that I do not write to a big empty nothing :)

Russ: I know. I had not seen that article, thanks for sharing it. I figure it is always best to be honest about anything, even if things are going bad. If you lie it will always make you look like you are doing something bad. And in this case, regardless of what is actually happening, the one mistake he made is the one that is going to follow him.

Its a tight rope one must walk when you deal with private land owners. People should have learned that from Sue if anything! I am not saying that we should not work with private land owners at all, but that terms and understandings need to be solid, in writing, and very legal. You have to be careful these days, and it is rather sad I think that things like this happen (whatever it is that actually did happen).

Anonymous said...

So true Rebecca, Nate regrets that one mistake for sure, things had been rough with the rancher for some time as I know he talked about it a year before that. He (his side of course) was more concerned about the specimen staying with the foundation and it too not being put on the auction block. All other ranchers donated them to the foundation the Hammonds would not, they really wanted to sell so Nate told me he worked out a deal of 50/50 ownership before he would even dig on their land. He hoped that by that he would keep specimens from being sold. Leonardo however wa too much of a prize and his mistake led them a door to try and smear him -- and that group sure is trying to do him damage and remove him from any association with the specimen and its work.

Yes dealing with landowners is fraud with potential land mines it seems --we had that experience in South Dakota that you and I and Steve talked about.

It is good you posted this it indeed should not be hidden and as Nate says he had nothing to hide he was always on everyone about being open, and not selling, following all the rules as Dave Trexler said. I am sorry some feel Nate violated those things, I feel he did not. We all have the potential to screw up once in awhile it is too bad this one thing is now being blown out of proportion and used to try and smear the reputation of a person that has contributed so much to dinosaur science in Montana. I can only hope that true justice is eventually served!

Anonymous said...

Perhaps I got a bit hasty in my judgment (all the reading I have to do for history has put me on edge a little). You're right, innocent till proven guilty. I think the whole landowner situation got worse after the Sue fiasco, not just because of making sure the finds goes somewhere safe, but also of how much a fossil can fetch. Hopefully, for Nate's sake, the whole mess will get untangled and everything will be made clear. But as I learned working on a mammoth this summer, you don't know exactly how much you got until you've got the specimen prepped. Again, hopefully that's the case here.

Raptorman said...

I know Nate. I know this business. I think, as others have said, we need to wait until the dust has settled and the evidence is laid bare before making any hasty judgements. Trying Nate in the court of public opinion before knowing all the facts is a ridiculous, arrogant, idiotic waste of time. The field of Paleontology is complex and is unfortunately filled with back-stabbing, attention starved, ego-maniacs... viscious- more so than the raptor everyone is fighting over. Dealing with land-owners and trying to keep them happy AND preserve the science is a careful balancing act. Everything I have seen suggests Nate was all about the science... not the money. I suggest we wait til more is known before hanging the man.

Oh, and Crazy harp and Doog... Selling common fossils is not evil by any stretch of the imagination!It is not about greed, it is about keeping the electric bill paid. Common fossils sold to kids inspire future paleontologists. Common fossils sold to teachers further Earth science education. Common fossils sold to collectors generally make their way into museum collections once the owner has passed on. Common fossils ignored and allowed to rot away on the other hand, is pointless. If museums and universities understood basic market principles and sold off or traded out a few of the unwanted piles of bones they have lining their condemned basement warehouses (SDSMT), perhaps they would be able to actually hire and train the staff necessary to prepare the important stuff. There's greed here allright, but it is from the socialist elite who believe all fossils should belong to the state irregardless of their scientific significance. They hoard and condemn from their ivory towers without the slightest bit of common sence and practical logic.

Walter Stein... PaleoAdventures

Anonymous said...

The entire issue is a sad state of affairs. Having been interviewed by the criminal investigators whose office recently charged Mr. Murphy, I can say that there is much more than just this single dinosaur that was, at best, lied about, and at worst, stolen. Vilifying the land owners is the absolutely wrong thing to do. I feel sorry for those who continue to support Murphy as they are certainly in for a rude awakening.

Anonymous said...

I know most people don't know Nate Murphy so I can understand their reactions. But coming from someone who does know him, he was never the greedy person he is recently portrayed to be. As Russ and others mentioned, there is probably more to this situation than meets the eye. He should not be judged as harshly as some of the above comments. He was never about making money and all about furthering the science of paleontology. I hope that everything works out for him because I KNOW he is NOT a money starved man with no ethics. He is the farthest thing from that.

ReBecca Hunt-Foster said...

Thanks for the comments everyone. I might not away agree with everything you say, but I will give you the space to say it (as long as you are not personally attacking me/mine).

I do not personally know Nate Murphy. I was only posting the story. I have seen him around the SVP meetings but I do not recall ever speaking with him. I do not know how to get ahold of him either, so sorry I can not help there.

I do not think anyone has said selling fossils is evil. I do not agree with selling fossils, and that is my opinion and I am allowed to have it. Just as you are allowed to have your own. Don't rail on me about it here. Blog on your own blogs about how you feel.

I do thank you for the comments though. Keep them coming.

Anonymous said...

I have witnessed first-hand every stage in the saga of "Kleptoraptor", the specimen removed without permission by Nate Murphy. Since 2002, I have been one of Nate's biggest supporters among the paleontological PhD's. I've defended his museum against nasty rumors spread by other western museums. And I continue to defend the work on Leonardo the Mummy - the research is solid, thorough and reliable.

However, the issue of Kleptoraptor forced me to advise the museum Board to sever relations with Nate.

There is a smokescreen of half-truths out there. Nate Murphy admitted to land-owners and to the museum Board that he falsified the locality data for the raptor specimen, not once but repeatedly.

Falsification of locality data will get you fired, even if you are a PhD curator at a big research museum. Attempting to make money from casts from a specimen excavated from private land, without permission, will get you fired.

Right after its discovery in 2002-3, I analyzed the first lot of raptor bones, affirming that it was close to Bambiraptor. Nate said he'd get the rest after re-negotiating the contract with the landowners. But, in fact, he had not informed the land-owners. Unknown to me, he told co-workers not to mention it to the land-owners.

Three years later, Nate brought in a block with what he said was a new raptor, from another county. He denied that it was the rest of Kleptoraptor. I advised him that some of us could not believe the two-raptor story. Nate persisted, arguing that the new specimen had nothing to do with the first.

Only when the pieces of the first dig were shown to fit perfectly with those of the second did Nate finally admit that the "two" specimens were one and the same.

The turtle specimen is a red herring. The turtle was not mentioned until after Nate confessed to removing the raptor from private land.

Falsifying locality data repeatedly is a mortal offense for curators. Mixing private profit with support for a public museum is even worse.

The traveling exhibit with Leonardo, three years in planing, will benefit the museum in Malta, Montana It is with regret that Nate has been separated from the project. However, there is no other choice.

Anonymous said...

I was one of the 3 people there that day Mark Thompson found the raptor. The only raptor.

So I read this string of comments with interest, especially Russ Jacobson's defense of Nate and his comments about a frame-up, the various conspiracy theories he raises, his comment that Nate is the victim here, that Nate's reputation is being wrongly smeared, and the comment about the "greedy" landowner seemingly suggesting that Nate's theft was somehow justified - all because in his view these people are jealous of his success and are wanting to steal Leonardo from Nate.

I have to admit that "before", I might have been saying some of the same things. Some days I wake up wishing that I could go back to what I now know was the fantasy of "before" when I was for a number of years a volunteer for Nate and JRDI and things on the surface were very good. I know now that things were in fact not good at all.

I was one of Nate's biggest supporters and defenders during all those years. Nate taught me much of what little I know about Paleontology. And I owe him much in that regard. He gave me the opportunity to help excavate and prepare Leonardo. DAK. Roberta. Peanut. Willow. Ralph. - really incredible stuff.

But I was also one of the three people there that day in July 2002 when the raptor in question was found by Mark Thompson (Nate's son Matt was the third). Mark named it Julieraptor after his sister. Ironically, Mark found Julie on the same afternoon that the crew of volunteers I was supposed to be watching out for went where I told them not to go and found Peanut, another wonderful Brachy.

I was one of those who was asked by Nate to keep Julie's existence secret from the very generous landowners until he could renegotiate a new agreement with them. I was one, along with Mark, who would ask Nate each year if this was going to be the year that we could finally go back out and finish collecting this beautiful specimen Julieraptor. Can you imagine? A raptor in the Judith! I hope you all get to see it one day - it's a beautiful specimen.

Mark and I were finally invited back by Nate to excavate the rest of Julieraptor - 4 years after its discovery - after Nate told us he had a new agreement and that the landowner had finally given him permission to go back out there and dig Julie.

Unfortunately, neither Mark nor I ended up being able to go that week. So they went back to the Julieraptor site without us during the time scheduled, and did collect a jacket from the Julieraptor site. Russ says in his comment that he helped haul the jacketed "turtle" out.

Did you see a turtle? Did Nate tell you that we collected much of a raptor called Julieraptor at that same site 4 years earlier? Did they tell you they were there at that site specifically to collect the rest of it?

Mark and I were both surprised and confused when Nate told us after he returned from the Julie dig that he had found nothing more of significance of Julieraptor. It sure looked like more was there when the site was closed before winter set in.


Then I was further surprised to hear a bit later Nate announce to Dr. Bob and others that he had found a raptor. Well, I said, that wasn't exactly true. Nate didn't find it. Mark did. And then suddenly we're hearing the story that we were now talking about his finding another raptor - from the Frenchman - Sid Vicious. Not Julie. A different one.


I and others questioned this and ultimately talked to the very generous landowners. With difficulty I told them of my suspicion that Sid Vicious was in fact the raptor Mark had found on their ranch. It turns out that Nate had never told them of the raptor's existence - ever - so I had to explain that first. I apologized in advance for the possibility that I might be wrong. It was a horrible thing to suggest.

But I told the landowners that it would be easy to get this sorted out. All Nate had to do to show I was wrong was take the landowner right out there to both the Julie site and the Sid Vicious site, show the landowners the notes and photos from both sites, show the landowners the bones from both sites, and compare the bones to the photos Mark took of the Julie bones. If his Julie bones and the bones in Mark's photos were the same, and Sid Vicious was a different second raptor, then I was wrong and I would apologize for suggesting such a thing could have been done by Nate.

Nate wouldn't do any of that.

All of us, including the landowners, are fortunate that Mark took such wonderful photos of the site and the bones that he found that day and later prepared beautifully. Mark always took good notes and photos. We gave the photos to the person Nate had hired to mold and cast the raptor for him to compare the bones to. The "Sid Vicious" bones matched the bones in the photos of Julieraptor perfectly.

No question.

When confronted with this fact, Nate finally confessed that Sid Vicious and Julieraptor were in fact one and the same raptor. I also credit Matt, who was there with Mark and I when Mark found Julie, for helping convince his dad that he needed to tell the truth.

So a confession - sort of. But the turtle story? And - surprise!! - finding a raptor underneath the turtle? Pardon us if we're having a hard time with that one.

I'm sorry but in some ways not surprised to see many people including Russ still viewing Nate as a victim in all this, and blaming Nate's difficulties not on his own poor choices but rather on the mal-intent of numerous others, "the group" as Russ calls us, including the landowners and Dr. Bob. It is in fact still hard for me to believe this could have happened, and harder still to understand why.

I don't understand why.

But the landowners are not to blame. Nor is Dr. Bob. There has been no effort by anybody to frame Nate. I personally witnessed the landowners'incredible generousity and patience with Nate over the years, giving him many second chances when he wasn't deserving. And I personally watched as Dr. Bob totally supported Nate and the Leonardy Project with good humor and grace (Nate called him his "right hand man" - a Gabby Hays type I guess). Bob was also one of Nate's biggest and most vocal defenders as other paleontologists took their many, many unfair shots at him and at Leonardo. Professional jealosy in all this? Sure there's been plenty from other western museums, but not from Dr. Bob.

Russ, I too am looking forward to Nate having his day. He is innocent until proven guilty. I want him to explain the "misunderstanding" in all this. And that "turtle" story with the "surprise raptor" underneath. And many more things that we are trying to understand. He knows what they are.

Those of us who worked closely alongside him, learned so much from him over these past few years, thought we knew him, are looking for some answers.

ReBecca Hunt-Foster said...

Thank you for the comments everyone. I appreciate the thoughts and stories! Please keep them coming! An update on the story is coming tomorrow

Anonymous said...

I have heard from Nate some of what Bob and Tim say so it seems to me that we have two sides of an issue that are totally opposed. All I know is that i carried out a jacket that Nate told me was a turtle and that later (the story he says in papers) Matt found the raptor under it. I have no evidence to prove that was true (I saw the raptor stuff at Malta field station but that is all). I cannot prove either side here which I guess we will have to see what comes out in the trial.


Anonymous said...

What do you think about this now?