Recap of the SUE T. rex Fiasco - March 1996
A raid was conducted on the Black Hills Institute to seize SUE the most complete and well-preserved T. rex skeleton ever found. The premise used to justify the raid was the Atiquities Act(1906). The acting US Attorney who ordered the seizure had only been on the job for several weeks and had never even tried a case before. Sometime later, the Dept. of Interior looked into the matter and declared that legal basis for the seizure was invalid.
Many professional paleontologists openly condemned the government actions. Robert Bakker testified in court hearings on behalf of the Institute. Greg Retallack wrote a piece in Newsweek (Fossils are for Everyone) that was openly critical of the seizure of SUE and the restrictive Baucus-type legislation. John Ostrom expressed concern about a "holier-than-thou" attitute he perceived on the part of some of his professional collegues. Ken Carpenter refused to collaborate with federal authorities in the seizure, basically telling them he doesn't do witch-hunts.
If the Feds were prudent, they would have realized at this point that they were dealing with some kind of faculty war from hell. They forged ahead anyway, finding a different clique of paleontologists that were willing to say bad things about the BHI in court. Even though no criminal charges had been filed at this point, more raids and seizures of BHI property were conducted. Specimens, field notes, photographs and business records were all carted up and taken away. The Institute was paralyzed, unable to conduct normal business. The entire town of Hill City, SD was hit hard by the heavy-handed government actions. The IRS examined all of the BHI books, yet found no evidence of any wrongdoing.
The first time I really became familiar with this case was when I saw the Prime Time Live(ABC) segment that delved into this matter. I knew about SUE from press reports and like many others I was very interested in her because the skeleton was so well preserved. I had heard about the numerous pathologies of SUE, the stomach contents, the other T. rex found in association, etc. I had also heard reports that the reason for the seizure was to prevent the sale of this specimen to some unnamed foreign interests. I tuned into Prime Time Live expecting to see some evil money- grubbing scam artists hoisting crates onto some foreign cargo vessel in the dark of night... with G-men arriving to save the day.
What I got instead was one hell of an upsetting dose of reality. The bad guys turned out to be the Feds and their collaborators. The BHI had been the recipient of a Raw Deal, of Schwarzenegger magnitute.
For their part, the BHI had discovered, purchased, excavated, and partially prepped SUE. They had put SUE and the prep activities on public display and were visited by thousands. They made it clear from day one that SUE was not for sale. They established a new non-profit entity, the Black Hills Museum of Natural History, located in Hill City, with SUE as the centerpiece. They enlisted around 30 noted scientists worldwide to work on a common monograph about SUE. Terry Wentz, chief preparator at the BHI, put in over 5,000 hours of preparation time on SUE's skull to get it ready to be cat scanned at NASA for inclusion in an upcoming piece in National Geographic. Then, just days before the skull was to be sent to NASA, the witch-hunters arrived to seize the specimen and transport it to the School of Mines in Rapid City. They explicity would not even allow the cat scan to occur despite requests from NASA and National Geographic.
I did some more research regarding the BHI, not believing that federal authorities could possibly be this inept. I read articles, talked to museum personnel, paleontologists, geologists and got the same story everywhere. The BHI was given flying colors for their work in paleontology. Their prep work in particular is acknowledged as among the best in the world. I went to Hill City to see for myself. I found their work to be outstanding. These are impressive people who work hard, do good science, and know as much about the proper collection and treatment of fossils as anybody.
The BHI has provided both specimens and reproductions(casts) to museums all over the world. Their entry into the world of dinosaur paleontology began at the Ruth Mason Quarry in South Dakota. This site consists of a bonebed of around 2,000 Edmontosaurus annectens (all disarticulated) that were killed en masse in a large flood event. With 2,000 individuals present, Pete Larson believes that any museum in the world that wants a skeleton to display should have one. The BHI has the ability to deliver a top quality fully prepped and mounted dinosaur at a fraction of the cost that a museum would incur if they did it themselves. Perhaps this is one reason why some of the taxpayer-subsidized, "holier-than-thou", Baucus bill toting, SAFE website types seem to fear and loathe the BHI.
When the federal prosecutors finally thought about filing some charges, things got really strange. New and creative interpretations of the law became an almost constant theme among the prosecutors and the judge. The only objectives they appeared to have was to put the BHI out of business and deny them possession of SUE. A plea bargain was attempted whereby the BHI would plead guilty to one single felony charge. The BHI responded that they wouldn't plead guilty to any crimes because they didn't commit any. The prosecutors came back with a 39 count indictment including around 150 total felony charges for the BHI personnel. Regular business transactions became "money laundering", sending of faxes became "wire fraud" and before you could say "What is this crap?" the principals of the BHI braced for a a hideous legal nightmare. Ironically, none of the charges involved SUE.
The potential years in prison for just Pete Larson's share of the charges was almost 500 years. For you legal scorekeepers, Pete faced more years in prison than did mass murderer Jeffrey Dahmer! The Cato Institute referred to the actions of the federal prosecutors as "revenge" against a group of citizens who simply stood up for their rights.
The trial that finally ensued was a huge defeat for the prosecution. For the first time, the BHI actually had the opportunity to state their case to a jury, which either acquitted or deadlocked 11-1 for acquittal on almost all of the charges. This was somewhat of a relief for the BHI, but they still had a few felonies dealing with nebulous laws about customs and international travel. The judge was forced to drop some of these charges due to precedent setting cases, but Pete was left with 2 charges for crossing an international border with more than $10,000. For sentencing, the prosecution flew in a witness from Peru and manufactured a flimsy arguement that Pete used some of the $15,000 he took there for illegal purposes. The judge used this to jack up Pete's sentencing guideline to the equivalent of rape, child molestation, or manslaughter.
Thus, Pete is now serving 2 years in federal prison. The only way out is appeal (even on fast track it will take at least 6 months) or presidential pardon. It's an outrage to say the least. I wonder how the judge, the prosecutors and their collaborators sleep at night. What they've put Pete and the BHI through is unconscionable. My heart goes out to Pete, his wife and kids, and the other BHI personnel and their families who have suffered through this injustice.
-Paul R. Janke