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Kill your wife, get probation. "Steal" a fossil, get two
[The story of "Sue," and the full text of Tim Johnson's bill, both mentioned
below, are available under Tyrannosaurids and Legal Issues, respectively,
on-line, in "Jeff's Journal of Dinosaur Paleontology" at
Malcolm W. Browne
N.Y. Times News Service
Peter L. Larsen, a commercial dealer accused of dinosaur hunting without a
federal permit, left his South Dakota home Wednesday to surrender to federal
authorities and begin serving a two-year prison term.
Although the felony charges that Larsen had been convicted of had to do with
carrying currency between the United States and two foreign countries, the
object of prosecutors was to strike at unauthorized fossil collecting on
federal land and at an international trade in fossils that involves millions
of dollars a year.
Many academic paleontologists have denounced irresponsible fossil collecting
by commercial dealers on federal land. But others, including Dr. John
Ostrom of Yale University, have expressed uneasiness about what they regard
as the overly restrictive regulation of fossil hunting.
Some, including Dr. Robert Bakker, a paleontologist and former faculty
member of the University of Colorado, testified at Larsen's trial on his
behalf, describing Larsen as a responsible paleontologist.
Patrick Duffy, Larsen's lawyer, described the sentence handed down by Judge
Richard Battey of U.S. District Court as "brutal." Duffy said Larsen's wife
and three children had been subjected to an "intolerable ordeal."
"We recently had a guy here in South Dakota who got off on probation, with
no prison time, after killing his wife in a drunken rage," Duffy said in an
interview. "Sentencing Pete Larsen to two years sends a message that the
American justice system is in deep trouble."
Larsen and his associates at the Black Hills Institute of Geological
Research in South Dakota had been embroiled in legal problems since 1992,
when several dozen FBI agents and National Guardsmen raided the company's
workshop in Hill City, S.D.
They seized a _Tyrannosaurus rex_ fossil dubbed "Sue," regarded by
scientists as they most complete tyrannosaur skeleton ever found. In that
and in many subsequent raids, the Justice Department seized the company's
records and many of its other fossils.
In 1990, Larsen's associates had found the tyrannosaur fossil on reservation
land owned by an Indian named Maurice Williams, who agreed to let the Black
Hills Institute excavate and keep it in exchange for $5,000.
But later, after Larsen and his colleagues began cleaning and restoring the
bones, the U.S. attorney charged that the fossil had been illegally taken
from land under federal administration. The dinosaur fossil was placed in
storage at the South Dakota School of Mines, where it remains in crates. In
1994 a federal court ruled that title to the dinosaur belonged to Williams.
He apparently will be permitted to dispose of it as he wishes.
Experts say the tyrannosaur fossil could bring as much as $5 million,
particularly if it is sold in Japan.
A grand jury subsequently indicted Larsen and four colleagues on 39 charges
mostly related to trafficking in fossils illegally excavated from federal land.
In the trials that followed most of the charges were dismissed, but Larsen
was convicted of two felonies -- failure to report to American customs
officials $31,700 in travelers checks he had brought from Japan, and failure
to report $15,000 in cash he took to Peru. He was also convicted of two
misdemeanors: illegally taking a fossil worth less than $100 from federal
land, and illegally retaining another small fossil.
On Jan. 31, Battey sentenced Larsen to two years in prison, ordering him to
report to the federal penitentiary in Florence, Colorado, on Feb. 22. Duffy
said that several appeals were pending, but that Larsen would have to report
to the minimum-security prison.
Paleontologists are in broad agreement that the web of U.S. laws possibly
applying to the collection of fossils is ambiguous and confusing. In some
cases laws could be interpreted as banning field excursions by Boy Scouts as
well as collecting expeditions by dealers.
Rep. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., introduced a bill this month aimed at clarifying
the law. He said the measure "addresses the pressing problem of how to
balance the need to preserve the natural resource of fossils with the right
of the public to access federal lands."
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