BILLINGS — Amateur paleontologist Nathan Murphy, whose discovery of the world’s best-preserved dinosaur made him a leading name in the for-profit fossil industry, will serve 60 days in jail for stealing bones from private land.
The self-taught owner of a private dinosaur hunting business in Billings, Murphy, 51, was convicted in March of felony theft for taking raptor bones from a landowner in the Malta area. Sentencing in a separate federal case involving additional fossils is scheduled for July 9.
Murphy’s work includes unearthing a mummified duckbill dinosaur dubbed Leonardo, considered the world’s best-preserved fossil. The bones of the turkey-sized prehistoric raptor at the heart of his theft conviction were found by one of Murphy’s workers in 2002.
Since he was first charged last year, Murphy has claimed a series of honest mistakes led to the joint federal-state criminal investigation that brought his conviction. But in an interview Monday, he acknowledged concealing the truth about where the raptor bones came from — and suggested he was not the only fossil hunter to make such a claim.
“I understand my responsibility and I hope others who were involved in it will take it to heart,” he said. “The investigation created a poster boy. They’re going to have Nate Murphy to hold up to the public and say, ‘Don’t pick up nothing on public land, and know where you are at.’ They needed somebody like me.”
He must serve his 60 days at some point during the next 6 months. Murphy said he is likely to conduct another dinosaur dig in the interim.
At his sentencing Wednesday, District Judge John C. McKeon imposed a $2,500 fine and $650 in restitution. A possible five-year jail term was deferred, with the paleontologist to remain on probation.
His attorney, Michael Moses, said jail time had not been expected under the terms of Murphy’s guilty plea. But he said the judge made a fair decision.
“What Nate did wasn’t good,” Moses said. “The judge recognized the significance of it. You don’t get to put your hand in the cookie jar, take out a cookie and then 6 months later put the cookie back in.”
A spokeswoman for the Montana attorney general did not have an immediate comment on the case.
Law enforcement officials and other paleontologists have said the case shed light on the chronic problem of fossil theft, which is driven by the increasingly high prices that rare specimens bring on the open market.
More than 200 law enforcement incidents involving fossils were tallied by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management over the last decade, federal officials say.
The bones of the raptor that Murphy stole were initially nicknamed “Julie” after the sister of an Australian, Mark Thompson, who found the bones while working with Murphy’s son on a ranch in Phillips County in August, 2002.
Thompson was asked to keep quiet about the find, according to court records. Later, after Murphy gained possession of the fossil, he gave it another nickname, “Sid Vicious,” and said he had found it in 2006 near Saco, Mont.
By then, Murphy had sought to have molds of the fossils made that could have brought up to $400,000 through the sale of casts on the retail fossil market.
He was convicted in April on a separate federal charge of theft of public property, for stealing more than a dozen fossilized dinosaur bones from BLM land near Malta without having a permit. His July sentencing will be before U.S. District Judge Sam E. Haddon.
While he awaits his time in jail, Murphy said he plans to continue leading dinosaur excavation tours, with a monthlong expedition scheduled in the summer near Grass Range.
He said his conviction had hurt his business, and that most of this summer’s participants will be student workers who will not bring in money.
“I’m going to just move on,” he said. “I have a lot of people that have supported me over the years that have continued to support me.”
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