A famed paleontologist who discovered the world's best preserved dinosaur pleaded guilty Tuesday to stealing dinosaur fossils from federal land in Montana.
Nate Murphy, 51, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Great Falls under a plea agreement that would not seek jail time when he's sentenced July 9. Murphy would have faced up to 10 years in prison, a fine of $250,000 and three years of supervised release.
U.S. Magistrate Keith Strong initially refused to accept the plea after Murphy said he made a "mistake" in not accurately mapping where fossils were recovered, said the prosecutor, assistant U.S. Attorney Jessica Fehr.
"This was not a mistake," Fehr said. "If this was merely a mistake, it would not be sufficient for a criminal charge."
Murphy later clarified that pinpointing the exact location of fossil finds was standard scientific procedure and that he did not do so in two instances. In his plea to theft of government property, Murphy also admitted to acting with "willful ignorance or blindness," indicating that he knew his actions risked violating the law.
Prosecutors also said Murphy had a similar run-in with authorities in 1994, when he was accused of removing a dinosaur fossil nicknamed "Elvis" from U.S. Bureau of Land Management land without a permit. No charges were filed in that case.
U.S. Attorney Bill Mercer said Tuesday that he hoped this latest case would deter others from committing similar crimes. The bureau has followed more than 200 law enforcement incidents involving fossils over the last decade, federal officials said.
"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," Mercer said.
Murphy's attorney, Mike Moses, declined comment after the hearing.
Murphy, a self-taught paleontologist who runs a private fossil-hunting business based in Billings, gained fame in 2000 when he discovered a mummified, 77-million-year-old duckbilled hadrosaur known as Leonardo.