4 Weird True Crime Stories From the Dinosaur Fossil Black Market

Unpredictable laws and high demand create the perfect environment for illegal enterprise.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

It’s hard to put a price on a dinosaur. That’s not because wonder is hard to quantify, but because the fossil market is insanely complicated. Part of the reason for this is that the laws dictating which bones can be sold are hard to parse and provenance is nearly impossible to establish once a Tyrannosaur is out of the ground. In short, the triassic nostalgia business is ripe for malfeasance. Crime is just a fact of life among the bones.

Many fossil-rich countries, including Argentina, China, and Mongolia, ban commercial exports entirely. In the United States, the rules governing the sale of bones are largely dictated by who owns the land on which they were found. All over the world, dealers participate in a black market facilitated by lax enforcement, opaque legislation, and the sense that no one is getting hurt. The illegalities run the gamut from failed due diligence to outright theft, but the true crime stories emerging from the fossil trade are always fascinating.

These four are indicative of just how crazy the bone business has become.

The Brazen Pro

The import and sale of a Tarbosaurus bataar, a smaller cousin of the T. rex, from Mongolia may be the most high profile dinosaur crime on record. Eric Prokopi of Florida pled guilty in 2012 to charges related to the illegal import of the bones, which he pieced together into a complete skeleton and sold at an auction for just shy of a million dollars. The transaction was never completed, though, because the Mongolian government stepped in to recover its property.

A Tarbosaurus bataar skeleton, on display in Russia.

Vladimir Varfolomeev/Flickr

The case stands out because of Prokopi’s brazenness. The chances that he’d attained a Tarbosaurus not from Mongolia were minimal, so the animal’s presence at a high-profile public auction was bound to raise eyebrows. It was also fairly clear his crime was premeditated and designed to help him profit from the fruits of his labor. He had, after all, excavated and mounted the skeleton. But that’s not how the fossil market works.

Prokopi, who may or may not have beef with Nicolas Cage about a Tyrannosaurus skull, was sentenced to three months in prison, plus three months at a halfway house, and a year of probation. He was also compelled to complete 100 hours of community service. The judge recommended they be fulfilled at a museum of natural history.

The Field Trip Gone Wrong

Just last month a group of Texas college students and their chaperone were charged with stealing and removing 60 pounds of fossils, worth approximately $2,500, from Utah on a geology field trip. It’s unclear if they were looking for souvenirs or a quick buck, but either way their crime was pretty dumb.

When non-scientists remove fossils from the ground, a lot of potentially important information contained in the rocks surrounding the bones is lost forever. When amateur thieves are involved, both the fossils and the surrounding rock often end up damaged by the careless excavation, and this was the case in this incident. The college president said students on future trips will have to practice turning each other in for wrongdoing before visiting the fossil quarry.

The Fall From Grace

In the United States, the legal status of a fossil depends heavily on where you found it. There is therefore a pretty big incentive to take bones from somewhere you shouldn’t, but insist you took them somewhere else. That’s what got amateur paleontologist Nathan Murphy in trouble.

He covered up a find of some raptor bones on private property, only to claim years later to have found them somewhere else. In addition to being worth an estimated $400,000, the bones were a scientifically important find. Other paleontologists mourned his fall from grace. He had been respected in the scientific community, where lying about where you found something is a cardinal sin, since there’s as much information in the location as in the fossil itself. Murphy was sentenced to 60 days in jail.

A dinosaur footprint in Utah. 

Greg Willis/Flickr

The Trophy Hunter

Jared Ehlers wasn’t out to steal Utah’s Jurassic treasures when he came across a 150-pound slab of rock with a three-toed dinosaur print. He apparently didn’t think much of taking it home with him, and told friends about the find.

Later, when he learned authorities were looking into the disappearance of the 190-million-year-old track, he threw it in the Colorado River. Brought up on charges, he eventually pleaded guilty and called the disposal of the rock a “horrible decision.” Ehlers was sentenced to one year of probation. He also must repay the state the $15,000 it spent failing to find the fossil on the bottom of the river.