Dinosaur hunter sentenced for stealing fossils

/ Source: The Associated Press

Renowned dinosaur hunter Nathan Murphy was sentenced Wednesday to four months in a halfway house and three years probation after pleading guilty to stealing fossils.

Murphy was accused of stealing 13 dinosaur bones from central Montana's Hell Creek badlands in 2006. He pleaded guilty in April to theft of government property.

U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon also sentenced him to 300 hours of community service and ordered him to pay $17,325 in restitution.

The case provided a rare glimpse into the black-market fossil trade while sinking the reputation of the 51-year-old, self-taught paleontologist who rose to fame on his discovery of the world's best-preserved fossil, a mummified duckbill dinosaur dubbed Leonardo, in 2000.

"I have no excuse. I was wrong and I know it," Murphy told Haddon during his sentencing hearing. "I want you to know that this has devastated my life."

Murphy was sentenced last month to 60 days in jail on a separate state count involving a stolen raptor fossil.

Federal prosecutors wanted him to serve an additional 10 months on the federal charge. Still, U.S. Attorney Bill Mercer said the case would serve as a deterrent to others who would steal fossils from public lands.

"We want to avoid ever having to prosecute a case like this again," he said. "The best way we can deter is to make sure that if people are on federal land excavating for dinosaurs, they're going to be prosecuted for it."

The government sought the $17,325 in restitution for damage done to public lands during Murphy's excavations. Murphy's lawyer, Michael Moses, said the scientific integrity of the fossils wasn't compromised by his client's digging.

Prosecutors in the state case said Murphy sought to have casts made of the stolen raptor that could have brought him up to $400,000 from the sale of reproductions.

While it's legal to take and sell bones from private property, federal law generally prevents their removal from public lands without a research permit. But the remoteness of many prime fossil grounds in Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and other western states makes enforcement difficult.

Murphy's theft case was pending when President Barack Obama signed a law in March setting a penalty of up to five years for stealing bones or other fossils from public land. The Paleontological Resource Protection Act came too late to apply to Murphy's case.

The new law — combined with Murphy's conviction — will force fossil buyers to question where bones came from to avoid becoming accomplices to a crime, said Scott Foss, a regional paleontologist with the Bureau of Land Management in Utah.

Murphy runs a business in Billings that charges customers $200 a day to participate in dinosaur digs.

He was paleontology director at the Dinosaur Field Station in Malta, Montana, for 15 years before resigning in July 2007 — about the same time state and federal authorities began investigating his activities.