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Paleontology: Don't Touch the Femurs

Outside magazine, June 1995

Paleontology: Don't Touch the Femurs
By Chris Dray

"Finally, I can get back to work." That's about all Peter Larson had to say after a jury last March acquitted him of the major charges in a rare case involving dinosaurs and the American justice system. Larson is the president of the South Dakota-based Black Hills Institute of Geological Research who, in 1990, oversaw the discovery of the only full Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton ever found (see "The Bone Hunter," Dispatches, March 1994). Three years later, the bones and others in his collection were confiscated and Larson (pictured above) was indicted on charges that included grand theft. The reason: Land from which Larson had taken the bones was held in trust by the government, and the feds believed that they had dibs on his collection.

The not-guilty verdict was a major blow to the government in the battle over who owns fossils found on public land. But the case may deter bone-hunters anyway. Larson, who faced 353 years behind bars and $13 million in fines, still owes $250,000 in legal expenses. As for the T. rex, it's been ordered returned to Maurice Williams, the owner of the ranch on which it was found. "I don't know a thing about paleontology," Williams says. "But I've received offers from people who say they'll do great things with that fossil."

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