Video: Dating Leonardo

updated 3/19/2009 8:03:48 PM ET 2009-03-20T00:03:48

A famed paleontologist who discovered the world's best preserved dinosaur intends to plead guilty to stealing dinosaur bones from federal land.

The change of plea motion from Nathan Murphy follows state and federal investigations into his alleged attempts to cash in on the highly lucrative fossil market.

Murphy, 51, is a self-taught dinosaur expert who spent much of the last two decades searching for bones in central Montana's Hell Creek formation — a rocky badlands once stalked by the fearsome tyrannosaurus rex. In 2000, he famously discovered a mummified, 77-million-year-old duckbilled hadrosaur known as Leonardo, considered the best preserved in the world.

But after previously denying wrongdoing, court documents filed Wednesday show Murphy has reached a plea deal on a federal charge that he stole bones from public land near Malta. Prosecutors have not disclosed how many were taken.

He faced up to 10 years in prison if convicted.

Murphy's case offers a rare glimpse into the illicit underside of paleontology, in which wealthy collectors are willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for rare or unusual specimens. This weekend, a 150-million-year-old dryosaurus fossil taken from private land in Wyoming is expected to be auctioned for up to $500,000 in New York through the I.M. Chait Gallery.

Josh Chait, who runs the gallery, said the sales create financial incentives for exploration that can lead to groundbreaking discoveries.

Federal law generally prevents the removal of bones from public lands without a research permit. But the remoteness of many prime fossil grounds in Utah, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and other western states makes enforcement difficult.

"There's probably somebody out stealing fossils from federal land in Montana today, and we don't know about it because there's not enough law enforcement to patrol all of these sites," said Martin McAllister, a private archaeological investigator from Missoula.

A sweeping public lands bill approved Thursday by the U.S. Senate contains penalties that specifically target fossil theft from federal land, which paleontologists have sought for years. The bill now heads to the House of Representatives for final action.

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Murphy also pleaded guilty this month in state court to stealing a raptor fossil from private land and trying to cash in on molds from the specimen. Casts made from those molds could have brought in from $150,000 to $400,000.

The federal plea agreement must be accepted by U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon in Great Falls. The hearing has not yet been set.

Jessica Fehr, the assistant U.S. attorney handling the case, declined comment Thursday.

Murphy won't speak publicly about the case until the agreement has been accepted, his attorney Michael Moses said Thursday.

Murphy runs a business in Billings that takes paying customers on weeklong dinosaur excavation expeditions. He was the director of paleontology at the Dinosaur Field Station in Malta for 15 years before resigning in July 2007.

"He's devoted his life to that Malta museum," Moses said.

He left the museum shortly after the Montana Division of Criminal Investigation and the federal Bureau of Land Management began investigating his activities.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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