Field Notes: Boneheads

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Outside magazine, December 1997

Field Notes: Boneheads
A tale of big money, prison, Disney World, and the world’s foremost dinosaur-hunting twins By John Tayman

On the morning when the fair-market value for the world’s finest unassembled real-bone Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton was to be established, Frederick J. Nuss, owner of what is arguably the world’s second-finest real-bone T. rex, was in line outside Sotheby’s auction house in midtown Manhattan, waiting to get inside. He
wore a black tie with a dinosaur running down its length, and he smiled at the people waiting with him in the warm fall sun — an engaging smile dimmed not in the least by the absence of several front teeth. As a commercial fossil dealer, Nuss possessed a strong professional curiosity about this day’s auction, yet he was even more keenly interested from a fiduciary
standpoint. For the past five years Nuss had been offering for sale his own dinosaur, a skeleton discovered in South Dakota in 1992 and dubbed Z. rex. Despite its being for much of that time the only such specimen on the open market, he had received few credible offers, and none even remotely approaching his $10 million asking price. This state of affairs was frankly both puzzling
and annoying to Nuss and his business partner, Alan Detrich. They felt that their markup was reasonable. (“$10 million is a giveaway price,” Detrich told me when I first encountered the two men several years ago.) They could also claim a roster of distinguished and satisfied customers, including the actor Charlie Sheen, who purchased for his personal use a 70-million-year-old
mosasaur skull, for which he was charged $30,000. “A very good amount, and Charlie was quite pleased,” Detrich explained.

Hollywood actors aren’t really the core market for T. rexes, however, and Nuss’s trophy T. rex had sadly gone buyerless, despite nibbles from several large foreign corporations and a few stateside museums. The problem was, no one really knew how much a T. rex was worth, since the few that had changed hands did so casually, between museums, decades ago. Nuss hoped that this
October auction, the first commercial sale ever of a fossil T. rex (only 22 of which have been found) would prime the sales pump and set a high market price. Although Sotheby’s estimate for the item was “in excess of $1 million,” Nuss and the people he’d brought with him from his offices in Otis, Kansas, scoffed at the amount. In their pre-sale betting pool, Nuss had wagered that
the bones would fetch a million dollars times ten — not coincidentally the same price he still hoped to obtain for his own T. rex — and he repeated this number aloud several times while we filed into the building and found our seats on the sales floor.

A capacity crowd of about 300 directed its attention toward the front of the room, where both an auctioneer’s lectern and part of the object for sale at the auction — its skull — were situated. Arrayed along the sides and back of the room were many dozen members of the media, and behind them, in lighted glass display cases, were arranged additional portions of the
offered item: the femurs and vertebrae and other bones from a 90-percent-complete Tyrannosaurus rex fossil, mostly still in dirt-packed slabs and shrouded with plaster forms and aluminum foil. In other words, in more or less the same state it had been in when a 38-year-old commercial fossil dealer named Peter Larson wrenched it from a South Dakota
hillside in late 1990. The Sotheby’s auctioneer stepped up to the lectern. “We announce this at every auction,” he declared in a clipped British accent, “but today the warning is especially apt. All items are sold as is.” Most everyone laughed.

The bidding started at half a million dollars and progressed quickly, growing more rapid as the amounts spiraled upward. When each million-dollar threshold was reached, Nuss and his team let out a polite whoop and then sat back giggling while the hundreds of thousands flew by. After stalling at $5 million for a brief, suspenseful moment, the bids hummed along until the selling
price reached $8.36 million, whereupon the gavel came down. A few minutes later a spokesman for the pleased buyer, Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, stepped forward to read a long prepared statement. It was revealed that the museum was operating as part of a syndicate whose members included the McDonald’s and Disney corporations; the Field Museum’s president acknowledged
plans to eventually send a full-size replica of the T. rex to Disney World, where it would pimp for Mickey Mouse in a newly created attraction to be called DinoLand USA; two additional replicas were to be sent around the world on behalf of that latter-day carnivore, the McDonald’s Corporation. The crowd of paleontologists and science journalists greeted the news by erupting with
laughter again.

As the press conference was winding down, one young Nuss associate clambered over some chairs to reach Nuss and explained that he was endeavoring to get a list of the failed bidders’ names. Nuss looked puzzled. Speaking more slowly, the young man continued, “We’re getting the names of everyone in the country who wanted to spend millions on a T. rex and weren’t able to. People
who might still want to buy a T. rex. Like, maybe ours? Is this ringing any bells for you?” Nuss, who gave signs of being a little flustered by all the disposable cash floating in the air, finally got it, and the two began pulling eight-by-ten glossies of their rampant dinosaur from a binder, preparing to hustle off in search of customers. Before they scattered, however, Nuss’s
colleagues discussed a rumor that had traveled the floor earlier. It was said that one of the losing bidders for the bones was pop star Michael Jackson, who had famously attempted to acquire the bones of the Englishman John Merrick, the Elephant Man. “Maybe he’s starting a collection,” someone ventured, which led to a dialogue among the Kansans regarding how one might get in touch
with Jackson. “We should find that out,” someone else declared, to general agreement.

At this same moment, at the precise instant when the bones he had unearthed passed into the open arms of the Field Museum and McDonald’s and Disney, Pete Larson was dutifully honoring the terms of his parole by staying within 50 yards of his place of business, the Black Hills Institute, which is headquartered in a converted gymnasium on the quiet main
street of a town named Hill City, in western South Dakota. The restrictions were strict, forbidding Larson from wandering even across the street to the Mardi Gras restaurant, there to get his favorite lunch of a Deluxe T-Rex Burger and fries.

He was able to monitor his loss by cellular phone, however, receiving mournful calls placed by his wife and others from the floor of Sotheby’s. It was the end of a painful chapter, really. Over the last five years Larson had been the tattered bird in an unusually surly game of badminton, first harshly bad-mouthed by an academic community resentful of the growing power of
commercial collectors, then bopped again by the federal government, which has been known to lash out when it suspects someone of quarrying profitable bones from public lands. And now it had come to this.

In the beginning, no one had had any reason to be anything but overjoyed. The affair had started on a fateful August day in 1990, when a member of Larson’s small team of commercial collectors was reconnoitering a vacant butte in the South Dakota badlands and spotted a fossilized femur poking through the earth’s flesh. After a preliminary investigation, Larson jotted out a
$5,000 check to the bemused landowner, who’d casually given permission for the group to wander around his land, and over the next few weeks the team pulled from the ground the nicest T. rex ever discovered, which they named Sue after the team member who found it. Within a few weeks, however, the possibility that this might be something of value occurred to the landowner, an
unprosperous Cheyenne River Sioux rancher named Maurice Williams, who wisely decided that he had not granted permission or made a sale after all. Eventually, the courts awarded ownership of the T. rex to Williams. (During the Sotheby’s auction, Williams could be seen in a plush office overlooking the sales floor, drinking champagne and dancing dreamily as the magical millions
rolled in.)

In the months following Sue’s excavation, however, Larson had proceeded under the assumption that he was its rightful owner and began lovingly preparing the fossil. This painstaking work was interrupted one dawn with the surprising arrival of 39 armed FBI agents and national guardsmen, who seized the crates containing Sue and spirited them off in a convoy of camouflage-painted
trucks, with Larson and a fair number of the Hill City citizenry chasing after them in their pajamas, wondering what the heck was going on. By the time the resulting legal battles were over, BHI was virtually bankrupt, Williams had been granted the right to sell Sue (after much debate as to whether his land was actually his or belonged to an adjacent Sioux Indian Reservation), and
Larson had been tossed into jail, convicted of two seemingly negligible crimes that actually involved the overseas sale of some other fossils (although the facts of the case had been shaken loose during the course of the Sue investigation). In a press conference staged on May 14, 1992, the day of Sue’s seizure, the U.S. attorney in South Dakota announced for the cameras that his
motive for calling in the FBI was the fear that Sue had been kidnapped from public land. He soon added that he also acted to prevent South Dakota’s precious paleontological specimens from falling into grubby commercial hands, a statement that gained some irony in light of subsequent events.

Even so, by the time the auction rolled around, Larson was in a forgiving mood. While locked in his cell for 18 months in a minimum security prison in Florence, Colorado, he’d had time to reflect on events, and he’d reached that stage that convicts sometimes reach, where the most logical next step is to just make the best of things and not dwell on the past. In a phone
conversation a few days before the auction, he explained to me that, in a gesture of good faith, he’d helped Sotheby’s prepare its materials for the auction, and in return he was allowed to publish a somewhat plaintive request — it was included in the auction catalog — that BHI be retained by the buyer to finish preparing Sue. The $500,000 such a consulting contract
would provide was sorely needed by the firm, which was still reeling financially from Larson’s legal bill (more irony) in excess of $1 million.

Unlike Fred Nuss, Larson had felt that Sotheby’s estimate was overly optimistic, and he’d somehow talked an elderly South Dakota businessman named Stanford Adelstein into traveling to New York to bid on Sue and hopefully to bring the bones back to Hill City in triumph. Adelstein and his entourage arrived at Sotheby’s with handmade signs inscribed “Bring Sue Home to South
Dakota!” and “Save Our Sue.” Adelstein, who was dressed in a pale greenish-blue suit and who bore a pleasant resemblance to Gabby Hayes, made the most of his brief flash of fame, entertaining reporters and glad-handing the city folk right up to auction time. Unfortunately, he’d apparently earmarked not much more than a million dollars for the rescue effort, because when the
bidding reached $1.2 million he scowled and threw down his bidder’s paddle angrily. He spent the remainder of the event in what appeared to be a dark and unapproachable mood.

As it happens, a couple of years ago I went dinosaur hunting in the immediate vicinity
of where both Pete Larson’s Sue and Fred Nuss’s Z. rex were found. This was shortly before Larson fell into the firm hands of the American penal system, and he was my guide. But I had actually come to South Dakota to meet not Larson, but two men who on occasion worked with him, a pair of amateur paleontologists known within the discipline as the Sacrison Twins.

Paleontology’s areas of affiliation can be indistinct, but they basically fall along commercial, academic, and amateur lines. Commercial dealers such as Larson and Nuss gather specimens for sale to individuals or to museums; some also study fossils and, on occasion, write papers. Academics typically organize digs and also teach, or administer grant programs, or oversee private
and public collections. Both of these groups employ amateurs from time to time, often as excavators or as finders of fossils; amateurs, however, are considered the unwashed within the science’s castes, and this is where the Sacrison Twins rank.

The two, who were born in 1956, have no formal schooling in paleontology, nor do they exactly make a living at it — Steven Sacrison is a construction worker and a part-time grave digger; Stan Sacrison is a fitfully employed electrician. Yet together they are the most successful finders of T. rexes in history. “There’s this golden aura around them,” says Mike Triebold,
president of the American Association of Paleontological Suppliers and a man who has beheld the Sacrisons at work in the field. “Fossils just seem to leap up at them.”

Both Sacrisons have the pale coloring of Scandinavians and are tall and slim and seldom without baseball caps atop their heads. Stan is considered the more garrulous of the two, which means that his spoken sentences sometimes contain a clause. Back in 1992, when Fred Nuss and Alan Detrich decided they wanted a T. rex to sell, they drove to the slowly evaporating town of
Buffalo, South Dakota, to seek out the twins, who were beginning to acquire a reputation within paleo circles. Nuss and Detrich had spent many futile months hunting for a T. rex. “We searched Montana and South Dakota but never found a damn thing,” said Detrich. “Then I ran into Steven and Stanley. They were digging a water ditch outside of town. We got to talking, and Stan says,
‘I know where there might be a rex.’ We went out and yep, there one was.”

The fossil was on private land, and after clearing things with the landowner, Detrich’s crew brought up the T. rex. They had been unable to find the lizard’s skull, however, an oversight that severely diminished the skeleton’s value. Resigned to the loss, the crew began closing the dig site. Then Steven stopped by. He found the skull.

The Sacrison Twins have also located three T. rexes while working for Larson, including the finest existing mounted specimen in the world, named Stan. (BHI, having paid the twins modest finder’s fees, added the fossils to its small museum, and started making big plans.) Stan — the human Stan — is thought to have located a fourth and probably a fifth T. rex, which he
has not yet formally announced. He offers no elaborate theory to explain his skill. “Let’s just say I know where to find them,” he says. “When I need one, I’ll go take a poke at it.”

In short, even if you don’t count the two T. rexes Stan seems to be holding in reserve, the Sacrisons are responsible for locating nearly one-fifth of the known T. rex fossils ever found.

Around Buffalo, Steven’s fame as a bone-finder was matched only by the renown he had gained by marrying, at the age of 23, a 15-year-old local girl. It was a wedding that occasioned much spirited discussion, but by the time I got to town Steven had quieted the talk by proving a steady husband and doting father, and attention now settled on Stan, about whom more than a few
people were worried, since it seemed that he’d taken to living in his car. Indeed, I found him in it on the morning he and Steve, together with Larson and me, were to go fossil hunting, and I knocked politely on the hood and stepped away to give him some privacy.

The four of us drove out into the arid grasslands surrounding Buffalo until we arrived at a ranch located on a geological site known as the Hell Creek Formation. Fanning out across an ancient riverbed, the fossil men began working the landscape. Larson, attired in a khaki outfit furnished with loops and epaulets to hold his instruments, worked slowly and methodically, pausing
every few steps to kick at rock formations. Stan, for his part, was dressed in old jeans and a T-shirt, and he shambled along with a stuttery gait, a Big Slam no-spill coffee mug dangling in his right hand and a Marlboro in his left. He walked without aim, scanning the ground for invisible objects, mumbling to himself. When the Marlboro flared out against its filter he dropped the
cigarette, ground it with his toe, and then snatched up the stub and stuck it, still smoldering, into his pocket. Steve was far off on the edge of the riverbed, seemingly daydreaming.

When Stan spotted something, he checked his stride and chugged happily over to a dusty square of ground. On both knees now, he began to scrabble at the earth. A small hole appeared, exposing a reticulated chunk of blackened rock. Stan excavated with his fingertips, then whole cupped hands, and finally a six-inch-long survival knife, which he grasped by the blade and angled
across the length of rock as if paring it, like a carrot. Revealed, the thing was not a rock but a fossilized horn, and soon Stan had another horn bared, as thick as a forearm and more than a foot long.

“Triceratops,” he announced, sketching in the air the dinosaur’s eight-foot-skull and serrated fan. “Hmmm.” He stood up. “Already got one of these in my parent’s garage.” Larson, who was now at his side, replied, “Yeah, it’s probably not worth much.” They left it in the ground.

Larson and Stan had met in 1992 in Rapid City. A mutual friend and fellow fossil hunter had introduced them, and soon Stan was taking Larson out and showing him some bones that Larson immediately recognized as a T. rex. Larson named it after Stan. In 1993, Stan led Larson to another T. rex, which they named Duffy, after Larson’s lawyer, Patrick Duffy,
who was handling the criminal aspects of the Sue imbroglio. Two years later, Stan’s brother endeared himself to Larson by discovering yet another T. rex, which they named Steven. Of these three, Stan the T. rex was by far the most complete and therefore valuable specimen, and by the fall of 1995, when I visited South Dakota, the fossil had become the crucial element in the model
of what Larson also hoped to achieve, in business terms, with Sue — if he ever got her back.

Reduced to its essentials, BHI’s plan was to generate cash flow by adopting the showbiz razzle-dazzle of a circus and the tourist-magnet allure of a science-based theme park. One afternoon I spent some time watching Larson and his crew prepare a cast of Stan for sale; the real-bone skeleton was then on tour in Japan, earning a hefty fee. Portions of the BHI building are given
over to a museum, while other parts house offices and prep areas and storage. The bone work — the teasing apart of dirt and rock from bone — is done on long benches by hand or with jeweler’s tools, and Larson mostly hires accomplished amateur rock climbers to do this work. “They just have a better feel for where rock ends and fossil begins,” he explained.

Even before he had Stan prepared and mounted, Larson had trademarked the name and was talking demographics with a marketing consultant named Arthur Novell, who handles things for Jim Henson Productions — the Muppets, in other words. Novell had definite ideas about how Stan should be positioned, entertainment-wise.

“We’ll take Stan before a focus group and find out his Q rating,” the impressively enthusiastic Novell told me. “We want to find the common denominator for all groups, even the ethnic groups. American Indians don’t like dinosaurs, for instance, so I don’t think that’s going to be a good audience for us. We’ll be looking at home video outlets and pay-per-view. A hologram in the
middle of Grand Central Terminal, perhaps. Have you noticed I’ve avoided amusement parks? We don’t want to do a Disney thing here. And do we want to tie-in with a fast food chain? No. Happy Meal dinosaur meals? No. A Stan doll is possible — unlike Kermit, Stan isn’t an icon yet, but we think he can be very big. Clearly Kermit is forever, and we’d like to do that again.”

This, of course, was well before Disney had fleshed out its plans for DinoLand USA, with a faux Sue as a major attraction. But Novell and Larson could already see where things were heading in paleontology. Toward the end of my visit, Larson showed me one of the casts of Stan (which he sells to museums for $100,000 a pop), and then the two of us hiked up to a spot overlooking
Hill City where Larson hoped to build his permanent museum, a place where Stan and perhaps even Sue could find a home. It seemed perfectly innocent, but to some of Larson’s defenders, this was exactly the kind of visionary thinking that had provoked the ire of his persecutors — a frank assessment that in the future the science of fossils was going to have to be yoked to
entertainment if the discipline was to survive.

In fact, grants for academic paleontological research have declined significantly over the past decade, and the total funds available for research last year amounted to less than what Michael Crichton received as a payday for his last dinosaur novel. “Paleontology is being trivialized,” Don Wolberg, president of the Dinosaur Society, explained to me. “In the United States there
are probably fewer than 5,000 paleontologists, and they’re all scrambling for jobs that disappear just as they find them. So the distinctions are being broken down; you’ve got Ph.D.’s who are classified as amateurs because they can’t get jobs in a museum anymore. There’s a lot of resentment, and as the leading commercial firm, BHI and Larson catch a lot of that.” Bob Bakker, the
model for the lead paleontologist in Crichton’s Jurassic Park, puts it more colorfully: “The sense of doom and gloom out there in paleontology is just incredible.”

Back on that fall day in Hill City, it was difficult to see anything sinister or dire about the ambitions of a guy who talked expectantly about pulling some traffic from Reptile Gardens, or at least from nearby Crazy Horse Monument or maybe Storybook Island, and certainly from the Flintstones Bedrock City. After I walked Larson back down the hill to a small lot beside his
offices and watched him climb into the trailer he and his wife still live in to this day, I drove to Rapid City, where at the time Sue’s bones were locked in a utility room at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.

The security guard at the School of Mines had scant interest in the evolution of paleontology, however, and despite much begging he refused to allow me in to see Sue. Thus my first glimpse of her would come many months later, after her first owner had gone to prison and lost her, and just before larger ambitions than Larson’s took possession of her in a dark-blue building on
York Avenue in Manhattan.

In the days after the sale at sotheby’s, Stan and Steve decided to become a little more serious about all this dinosaur stuff. “The amount surprised me, that’s for sure,” Stan told me, speaking about the final bid for Sue. In the market just created, he figured he’s essentially given away about $20 million worth of T. rexes, a situation that encouraged him to rethink his
priorities. He recently set up a Web site and began selling some of his own fossils, and he reminded himself of Fred Nuss’s promise to “share a nice fee” when and if Z. rex is sold. (The price tag for Z. rex has now been ratcheted up to $12 million.) “Also, I’m thinking about getting out a little more often and taking some pokes at those sites I know have T. rex sign,” Stan went
on. He’d also been thinking about a duck-billed dinosaur he’d sold BHI for $2,000. “Kinda seems like a ridiculously low price,” Stan said. “It was probably worth $50,000 at least.” Stan hadn’t mentioned this to Larson, who recently purchased the hilltop tract he had shown me and still plans to build his dinosaur museum. In fact, Stan probably would never bring it up. But next
time, he’d be sure to get a fair price.

All things considered, Stan and Steve were feeling a little more proprietary these days, a little less willing to share. In a small way, I could understand what they meant. One afternoon a few days after I’d first gone hunting with them, I sat in my hotel room thinking about the triceratops we — well, they — had found. It was beautiful, particularly the horn, which
glowed like ancient mahogany. The horn would be a nice thing to own. After a while I got into my car and drove out to the ranch on which we’d explored. The rancher who owned the place appeared, and as I passed I waved to him as if he’d invited me back. I spent several hours searching the riverbed, thinking the entire time of justifications for my impending theft of a valuable
artifact, and I’m saddened to admit that I probably would have taken the thing, if I ever had found it.

John Tayman is the deputy editor of Outside.