Going, Going, Gone
Even for a Tyrannosaurus rex, Sue's had quite a fight
Here's the chronology of a long battle:

Circa 65 million years BC: Sue dies intestate (defined) on the edge of the Cretaceous Seaway, a shallow ocean extending from present-day Minnesota to the western Dakotas, and south as far as the Gulf of Mexico. She is covered by sediments and fossilized, blissfully unaware of the legal tumult and media frenzy awaiting her a few million years later.

them thar hillsSue emerges from her long, stony sleep. © Ed Gerken, Black Hills Institute.

1990 AD: Sue Hendrickson discovers some interesting bones and contacts her boss, Peter Larson, president of the Black Hills Institute. Larson pays Maurice Williams, the landowner, for the right to excavate the dino, now called "Sue" to honor her finder.

1991: Alarmed by reports that Larson intends to sell Sue, Sioux leaders claim Williams had no right to sell the remains, since his land is held by the federal government in trust for him.

May 14, 1992: The FBI raids the Black Hills Institute, taking files, specimens, and 10 tons of Sue's bones, encased in plaster for preservation. Sue serves time in a garage in Rapid City, South Dakota, under conditions, some paleontologists charge, that will create sulfuric acid that will destroy her old bones.

1994: A federal district court awards ownership to Williams.

March, 1995: A federal district court convicts Peter Larson of two felonies (for failing to disclose cash while crossing U.S. borders) and two misdemeanors (for taking a fossil worth less than $100 and for possessing a fossil, both from federal land). Larson is not convicted of any crime related to Sue (see "Doing Time Over Fossils" in the bibliography).

Feb. 21, 1996: Larson starts serving a two-year prison term while his appeal is processed in court.

November, 1996: Sue arrives in New York City under FBI seal, and the auction house Sotheby's starts preparing her for sale. Larson, meanwhile, charges that hasty preparation will destroy the remains.

Enough irony to go around
The strange saga of Sue was freighted with irony that might appeal to a tyrannosaur's sense of humor:

While the federal government stepped in to protect public fossils from private collectors, the federal court decided that the fossil was actually the private property of Maurice Williams. Essentially, the court held that while Williams had had no right to sell the fossil to Larson back in 1990, he now has the right to auction it to the highest bidder.

While some paleontologists worried that Larson, a businessman who deals with private and public collectors, would remove the stupendous Sue from public view and scientific study, Sue's fate will be decided by the highest bidder.

Larson, the "private collector" who now sits in prison for crimes not related to the Sue case, is, according to some, a paleontologist who has published in the scientific literature and collaborated with numerous university scientists. "He has published articles -- big articles -- in scientific journals," says Klaus Westphal, director of the geology museum at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Peter Larson is keeping busy in prison, Westphal says, "writing the definitive work on T. Rex. His spirit can't be broken."

Not all paleontologists share that opinion. "Larson is certainly not a major scientific player in any sense of the word," says David Fastovsky, associate professor of geology at University of Rhode Island and author of "The Evolution and Extinction of Dinosaurs" (see the bibliography). Larson has "collected some remarkable specimens" but "he doesn't have significant publications that ... change the way people perceive dinosaurs."

At any rate, the effort to ensure that the public gets access to Sue, a crucial specimen for those who wish to understand a key carnivore, seems to have backfired.

What does the dispute tell us about the fate of federal fossils?

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©1999, University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents.