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.
Just watched the Discovery Channel special and had to see what happened to Nate. I see now that Nate got screwed. Too bad that he got hosed out of the recognition and money he deserved for this marvelous find just because academics think that only they should profit from great natural history discoveries.
I do not see how Nate got screwed out of any "recognition and money." Everyone in paleo knows that he worked on Leonardo. Its not some huge cover up or mystery by the evil "academics." No one is "profiting" from this! Especially not "academics!" There are no "academics" involved in this instance at all! I get tired of this "all academics are out to get the rest of us" BS. They aren't! There are many great, honest, wonderful paleontologist out there who may work for a living as a "academic" that do more for furthering paleontology that many others. Give me a freaking break.
And if you believe everything you see on TV, than there you are....a documentary is never telling the full story or all sides. Its is just one perspective. How can you tell from that particular show that Nate got screwed? Not even a court of law has decided that yet.
I don't know if he got screwed or not but I like how all his supposed associates and "friends" turned their backs on him when these charges got filed. I don't understand whats wrong with wanting to make money from something you love to do. And that's what they are trying to make it seem like. He shouldn't make money from it since it's in the name of science. Bull sh*t.
I do not think there is anything wrong with making money doing something you like. I do, personally, have a problem with selling fossils, but that is just my point of view and opinion. I think the incident in question has less to do with money, and more about deception, and whether it happened or not.
There is nothing wrong with doing science and making money. Its the loss of science to gain money that is wrong, IMO.
It seems to me that
Trexler and Bakker just sit on the sidelines drawing salaries, waiting for people like Murphy to do all the work finding the dino's then jump in claim all the glory and the fossils, get off your asses
Trexler and Bakker and do the work yourself, then you can claim the fossils and the glory. I wonder how many fossils would be found without the likes of Nate Murphy.
Knowing Nate personally, I know he would never intentionally "steal" any fossil. I know his perfessional focus is not on profitting from resale of specimens. Bakker et al have twisted the facts to suit their purpose. I have confidence that Nate will prevail.
I've known Nate for quite some time. He is an honest, caring man and has only ever had the advancement of science as his goal. He is not out for the money, contrary to what some of his so-called colleagues think. Horner, Bakker, and people who were supposedly Nate's friends are incredibly jealous at Nate's ability to find some of the most fantastic dinosaur specimens in the area. They want the sand box all for themselves. Guess they never learned how to share when they were children. Oh, wait, they still are children. Nate's "colleagues" shun him because he doesn't have a degree. Well, neither does a certain paleontologist in Wyoming - it's an honorary degree. Don't worry, Nate, you have many friends out here who believe you and believe in you. Don't despair.
"Well, neither does a certain paleontologist in Wyoming - it's an honorary degree."
It does not come down to if he has a degree or not, with me at least. I could care less. There is also a certain paleontologist in Montana who has an honorary degree. Who cares. As long as people do good, honest work, that is all I care about.
I'm in the process of getting a masters degree and let me tell you, "academics" are all about money and getting recognition. "Publish or Perish" is the saying and it's true. Most people don't realize that grants supplement a PhD's income- he/she gets some sort of pay out of most of his/hers grants. As an older student with lots of life lessons and various jobs getting my degree, I look at PhDs and see an equal regardless of my academic education. It's been my experience that PhDs don't like anyone walking on their "turf" unless their "equals".
This is really too bad. I've been out on several digs with Nate and I can't see him doing any of this. There was one instance where someone found an upside-down triceratops skull and Nate wouldn't let them touch it because there was a possibility it was on federal land. I agree that Bakker and Horner are sell outs (Jurassic Park), and that they have tossed Nate under the bus. Bakker for his comments, and Horner for Elvis.
If you know Nate you know he has never sold ANY of his finds. They have all been donated to science, to further our knowledge of dinosaurs. JoAnn and Howard Hammond got greedy after Leo came out and wanted more money, they even charged people to be on their land.
Do you know he was "kicked off" the Leo project cause he didnt have a degree? Who cares if he has one or not? Did he find an amazing dinosaur? YES! Did he do all he could to further our knowledge of that Dinosaur regardless of what happened to himself? YES!! Wow! He sure sounds greedy and mean!?!
After seeing the documentary and also realizing that there are at least two sides to every story, for me, it comes down to two things; greed and jealousy. Had Nate Murphy not found Leo, the scientific community would have never seen the incredible find that he unearthed.
The "academics" did not find Leo, Nate did. I work in the healthcare field and it too has "education snobs" woven all throughout the institutional fabric. Those that have advanced degrees are not far superior to individuals with curiosity, drive, ambition and the fortitude to achieve what they set out to do.
This world has many incredible finds and amazing discoveries yet to be unearthed. Those individuals in the scientific community that feel the need to be pompous and turn their heads to the achievements of others, advanced degrees or not, will one day be entombed in the very dirt that they dig. Maybe one day, millions of years from now, a Paleontologist will find their bones and be able to determine why they were so jealous and what was really inside of them!
Keep up the good work Nate and don't let others squash your desire and drive to uncover our past!
Whoa! Maybe the people who know Nate think he's a great guy, but the people who have worked with him? They know he's a crook. Nate was guilty. There are no two ways about it. If he wasn't so charming, and such a good lier, he never would have gotten away with everything he did for so long.
And I deeply resent the implication that other paleontologists are just resting on their laurels and profiting from the "amazing finds" that these "hard-working, intrepid amateurs" discover, only to have them torn away by the evil "professional" paleontologists. Huh? A friend of mine, who happens to be the same Dave Trexler from the Tribune article, is just about the hardest-working individual I've met. Despite chronic pain from breaking his back in the 80's, he goes out in the field every chance he gets and hunts for dinos, trying to find the next great discovery for science. His income is par with the poverty line, because there is no Mother Institute paying his bills; whatever he makes, he earns three times over. He has dedicated his career to keeping dinosaurs in Montana from being shipped to New York or Washington, D.C.
Okay, I know this has turned into a long tirade, and I apologize. Just bear in mind that, in a cutthroat field like paleontology, a degree does not automatically guarantee wealth or fame.
Here's a link to a the full story of Nate Murphys "Lies and Deceptions".
The woman who sleeps with him knows the most. Pillow talk reveals the most about the character of a man. Nate was charming, deceptive, the true picture of a pathological liar and narcissist. I didn't want to believe it for years until too many things big and small just didn't add up.
He did know about the raptor. He knows where he is digging at all times. He is the most brilliant field guy I've ever seen--a sort of genius. Yes, to some degree others have been jealous--but Nate is a braggart, loves approval and brought this on himself.
Guess what--it won't end. We'll see him in the news again. The Sternberg wanna-be is likely in trouble again with international fossils he shouldn't have. Sorry Nate--but the only legacy you'll leave behind now is one of complete fool.
Post a Comment