Paleontologist Pleads Guilty in Fossil Theft


Billings, MT—A paleontologist who gained fame by finding remarkably well-preserved dinosaur remains has been charged in a U.S. District Court with stealing from federal land.

The items he stole? Dinosaur fossils.

Nate Murphy first entered the paleontological spotlight in 2000, when he unearthed a mummified duckbilled hadrosaur. The dinosaur was estimated to be 77 million years old, and was nicknamed “Leonardo.”

Murphy, who is accused in this case of having stolen dinosaur fossils from federal land in Montana, initially claimed to have made a mistake in mapping where the fossils were found. Later, he explained that he had failed to follow proper scientific procedure, since he did not record the specific local of the fossil material he found.

He then negotiated a plea agreement, in which he admitted to “willful ignorance or blindness,” thereby admitting that he knew his actions were in violation of the law. Although U.S. Magistrate Keith Strong did not want to accept the plea deal while Murphy was still claiming that he had been mistaken, he later agreed. Murphy was able to plead guilty in order to avoid jail time. Had the plea—which was to theft of government property—not been reached, Murphy may have faced stiff penalties indeed. These could have included a $250,000 fine, up to 10 years in prison, and three years of supervised release.

Murphy was similarly accused of removing another dinosaur fossil, this one nicknamed “Elvis,” from U.S. Bureau of Land Management property without a permit. He was not charged in that instance, which took place in 1994.

More than 200 crimes or law-enforcement incidents involving fossilized remains have been reported in the past decade, say officials from the Bureau. Bill Mercer, a U.S. attorney, stated that he hopes this case will have a deterrent effect on other fossil-related crimes.

“This particular prosecution hopefully will send a strong message that if people do engage in that type of activity, there will be serious consequences in terms of legal action,” he said.

Murphy, 51, is a self-taught paleontologist who ran a private fossil-hunted business based in Billings, Montana.


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