American Palaeontologist Falls Foul of US Federal Laws

An amateur American palaeontologist based in Montana has pleaded guilty to federal charges concerning the stealing of vertebrate fossils from state land.  The palaeontologist, Nate Murphy, is well known in the scientific community as he has made a number of important dinosaur discoveries in the strata and sediments of Montana, including the remains of a semi-mummified Hadrosaur nick-named Leonardo, believed to be one of the best preserved dinosaur specimens found to date.

Yesterday, in a U.S. District Court, being held at Great Falls, Montana, Murphy pleaded guilty to removing more than a dozen fossilised dinosaur bones from United States Bureau of Land Management land.  It is legal to excavate and remove invertebrate fossils from state land in Montana, but to work on vertebrate fossils such as dinosaurs; specific permits are required and Nate Murphy; as an amateur not directly associated with any university or scientific body; did not have a permit.  Mr Murphy had already pleaded guilty last month to state charges of concealing the theft of a Dromaeosaur fossil from state land.  He claimed the discovery of a new species of “raptor” and intended to exploit the fossil’s commercial potential by selling casts and moulds of the fossil to museums.  In keeping with many palaeontological discoveries, Mr Murphy nick-named the fossilised Dromaeosaur “Sid Vicious”, unfortunately “Sid” has proved to be a very mixed blessing for Murphy.

To read more about the earlier allegations and charges against Mr Murphy:

First article: Local Fossil Collector Charged with Theft

Second article: Guilty Plea in Montana Dinosaur Theft Case

American law enforcement officials and federal officers have stressed the importance of making an example of Mr Murphy as fossil thefts are becoming more common as rare specimens fetch high prices on the open market.  Over 200 law enforcement incidents involving fossils were recorded by the American Bureau of Land Management over the last ten years.

Mr Murphy has entered into a plea bargain agreement and has requested that his sentence exclude any prison term, he will have to wait to hear his sentence as the sentencing date has been set for Thursday July 9th.

Commenting after the hearing had ended U. S. Attorney Bill Mercer stated that he hoped the high profile prosecution concerning a well known palaeontologist would deter others from committing such crimes.

Mr Mercer went on to add:

“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”.

Mr Murphy, aged 51, is a self-educated palaeontologist who runs a private paleo-outfitting business based in Billings, Montana.  Amongst his other commercial activities, Mr Murphy takes tourists on dinosaur digs.  Commenting prior to yesterday’s hearing, Nate Murphy had stated that he was eager to put his side of the story, but under advice from his attorney he chose not to make a statement at the court hearing.

U. S. Attorney Mercer praised the efforts of the federal authorities, particular praise was reserved for Special Agent Tom Madsen, who sadly passed away during course of the investigation.

Mr Murphy had pleaded ignorance and claimed not to know that he had taken fossils from state owned land.  Mr Murphy said he had made a “mistake” in not accurately mapping the fossil dig site.

After speaking with his attorney, Mr Murphy clarified his statement and stated that pinpointing the exact location of fossil finds is standard scientific procedure and that he did not do so in two instances.  Indeed, palaeontologists use GPS (Global Positioning Satellites) in order to establish the exact location and layout of dig sites.

“This was not a mistake,” commented the prosecuting council:  “If this was merely a mistake, it would not be sufficient for a criminal charge.”

In pleading guilty to the theft of fossils from state land, Mr Murphy admitted to acting with “wilful ignorance or blindness” meaning, he knew his actions risked violating the law but he chose to ignore that fact and face the consequences.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time that Mr Murphy has had a run-in with the law.  In 1994, he was accused of removing another dinosaur fossil from Bureau of Land Management land without an official permit, but no charges were ever filed.

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