Spectacular finds, criminal charges.
Published on Sunday, May 03, 2009.
Last modified on 5/4/2009 at 9:24 am.
By ED KEMMICK.
Of The Gazette Staff.
DAY 1: This is the first of a four-part series examining the troubled history of Nate Murphy, who is awaiting sentencing on state and federal charges of theft stemming from his activities as an amateur paleontologist.
Just a few short years ago, Nate Murphy was sitting on top of the world.
The amateur paleontologist from Malta was credited with finding some of the most spectacular dinosaur fossils ever unearthed. One of them, Leonardo, discovered in 2000, had been written up in newspapers and magazines around the world, and the Discovery Channel was working on a documentary about the find.
Paleontologists and other scientists flocked to Malta to be a part of the research into the mummified dinosaur that still bore the imprint of its skin. This newspaper, too, extensively charted Murphy’s adventures.
Murphy, a big, barrel-chested promoter who wore a straw hat and shorts no matter what the season, had made presentations about Leonardo at annual meetings of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, where he radiated enthusiasm.
His business of taking paying clients out on dinosaur digs was booming, and he could look forward to the eventual opening of the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum in Malta, which would house some of his many finds.
But in the summer of 2007, Murphy’s world began falling apart.
That July, in the face of growing evidence that he had stolen a raptor fossil from a Malta-area ranch and lied about where he found it, Murphy resigned as director of the paleontology lab at the Dinosaur Field Station in Malta, which he helped establish five years earlier. He was also asked to resign from the Judith River Foundation, which had grown out of his work with dinosaurs, and to sign over his partial ownership rights to the fossils he and his associates had discovered.
The foundation didn’t know it at the time, but the Montana Division of Criminal Investigation, the Bureau of Land Management and the FBI had opened investigations into Murphy’s dinosaur-digging activities a month before his resignation.
Those investigations resulted in a state charge of felony theft for stealing the raptor fossil, valued at as much as $400,000, and a federal charge of theft of government property for removing fossils from federal land when Murphy had no permit. Murphy pleaded guilty to both charges this spring and is awaiting sentencing.
A man with a history
In mid-April, when Murphy entered a guilty plea to the federal charge, his attorney, Mike Moses of Billings, told the judge, “This is a man with a history of doing the right thing.”
Many of Murphy’s former associates, including scientists, assistants and members of the foundation board in Malta, tell a much different story. They have learned that he misled them for years, removing major specimens without notifying the affected landowners, profiting from the sale of fossils and fossil castings and consistently failing to record even the most rudimentary scientific data on many of the bones he helped unearth.
And as a strange sidelight to the sins of omission and commission related to his paleontology work, Murphy had also been fabricating details of his own history, they discovered.
Murphy and his attorney have turned down several interview requests, and all Murphy has said since he was charged with crimes is that he will eventually tell the whole story and how others have tried to ruin him.
Although some of Murphy’s one-time colleagues expressed anger at his actions, most said they were merely bewildered. Whatever else he might have done, many of them said, he had an uncommon knack for finding dinosaur bones, and for being able to tell from the slightest of surface indications how fossil remains were situated underground.
Even Howie and JoAnn Hammond, on whose ranch most of Murphy’s discoveries were made, and who were most obviously victimized by his crimes, said they respected all he did for the area.
“Malta would not have the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum or the fossils without the time and talents of Nate Murphy,” JoAnn Hammond said.
Bob Bakker, a paleontologist who did much to formulate modern theories of dinosaur behavior and who has worked extensively with Murphy, said that for all the damage done by Murphy, he mostly hurt himself by squandering a wealth of innate talent.
“The monumental tragedy is, I don’t think it was necessary financially or any other way for Nate to prevaricate and make things up,” Bakker said.
David Trexler, a paleontologist at the Two Medicine Dinosaur Center in Bynum, near Choteau, was an early associate of Murphy and wrote the first scientific paper on Leonardo. When serious allegations of wrongdoing began to swirl around Murphy, Trexler said he ignored them, figuring Murphy “was being persecuted because he didn’t have a degree and it was a personality thing.”
“The more I learned, the less it seemed like that was the scenario,” he said. “Later it was, ‘Holy cow. I was misled for how many years?'”
Sue Frary, director of the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum in Malta, said Murphy “did this to himself, and that is what is so tragic.”
“The truth would have got him everything he wanted and more.”
Elvis, the first big find
Murphy, 51, has said he grew up in Southern California and Alaska. Though it is unclear how he acquired a working knowledge of field paleontology, he began talking with the Phillips County Museum about opening a dinosaur wing there soon after moving to Malta in 1992. Some of his early fossil prospecting in the area was done on his in-laws’ ranch near Saco.
In 1993, Murphy founded the Judith River Dinosaur Institute, a private, for-profit, paleo-outfitting business that took paying clients out on digs, ostensibly on private ranches to which he had leased access. The Judith River formation is the sedimentary layer in Montana that bears fossils from the Cretaceous era, roughly 89 million to 65 million years ago.
Murphy made his first big discovery in 1994 – a duckbilled, plant-eating hadrosaur that was complete except for a short segment of the tail and which was fully articulated, meaning the bones were connected.
It was later determined that Elvis, as the fossilized creature was named, had been found on BLM land, and that Murphy did not have a permit to be there. No charges were filed against Murphy, and the dig site was turned over to the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman. Elvis, still government property, is on loan to the Phillips County Museum.
Murphy had earlier applied for permission to explore for dinosaurs and excavate on federal lands in Montana, but his application was denied. The Gazette asked to see copies of Murphy’s application and the resume he submitted with it, but the BLM said no, citing Murphy’s privacy rights.
However, Christine Tincher, director of external affairs for the Montana/Dakotas BLM, did say the application “was denied based on the fact that we could not verify the information on his resume or his application.”
Laurie Bryant, now retired, was the regional BLM paleontologist when Murphy filed the application. She said she couldn’t go into specifics, either.
But when she first encountered Murphy, Bryant said, “Nate said he had a carpet cleaning business, and I’m not aware that he has any professional training, experience or education in paleontology. I would also say that the term ‘paleontologist’ is used pretty loosely by some people who think it’s just about digging up fossils. We can’t really learn much from fossils unless scientific data is collected with them and then analyzed by someone who knows what it means.”
A ranch rich in bones
In 1998, Murphy received permission from Howie and JoAnn Hammond to prospect for fossils on their ranch. The Hammonds had bought the ranch, about 25 miles north of Malta, in 1979. It now encompasses 37,000 acres, about evenly split between land the Hammonds own outright and grazing land they lease from the BLM.
Murphy rightly divined that the Hammonds’ place, much of it badlands gulches with lots of eroded slopes, was rich in dinosaur bones.
Howie Hammond said that Jack Horner, curator of paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, “was the first one who made us interested in it. He told us that if we found a fossil like Elvis, it might be worth a million dollars.”
There was no contract between Murphy and the Hammonds at first, just a verbal agreement and a handshake.
“If he found anything significant – those were his exact words – he’d let us know about it,” Hammond said.
At the time, the Hammonds said, they had no idea their ranch was as rich in fossils as it turned out to be, and it never occurred to them that Murphy would be removing anything from the ranch without their knowledge.
Bones unearthed, deceit discovered
Published on Monday, May 04, 2009.
Last modified on 5/4/2009 at 10:26 am.
By ED KEMMICK
Of The Gazette Staff
DAY 2: This is the second of a four-part series examining the troubled history of Nate Murphy, who is awaiting sentencing on state and federal charges of theft stemming from his activities as an amateur paleontologist.
Nate Murphy found Leonardo in 2000 on the Hammond ranch north of Malta.
Leonardo was a brachylophosaurus like Elvis, the dinosaur Murphy had found in the same drainage in 1994 but on land owned by the federal Bureau of Land Management. Both dinosaurs had been quickly covered with sand when they died 77 million years ago, allowing them to mummify before fossilization occurred, preserving them in three-dimensional shape.
But Leonardo was more remarkable still because it was partially sheathed in the fossilized imprint of its skin and scales, and some fossilized remnants of its last meals still lay in its gut. It is among the best-preserved dinosaurs ever found.
Other major discoveries would follow. Two more duck-billed specimens, Roberta and Peanut, were found in the same drainage as Elvis and Leonardo, and other finds Murphy was associated with included a new species of long-necked dinosaur near Grass Range, stegosauruses near Malta, and parts of titanic dinosaurs in Patagonia, Argentina.
Howie and JoAnn Hammond had had some problems with Murphy, but for a long time there was no reason to be overly concerned. After Murphy discovered Leonardo, though, it was obvious that they all needed a real contract.
The formal agreement they worked out gave the Hammonds and Murphy half ownership of Leonardo, with the Hammonds “entitled to receive any and all royalties or other compensation received from the casting or reproduction of any part of the specimen.”
The contract also called for Murphy to obtain liability insurance so the Hammonds wouldn’t be on the hook if Murphy or anybody with him was hurt during a dig on the ranch. Hammond said he pressed Murphy to produce proof that he had obtained insurance, and Murphy kept saying he had it and that the proof would be forthcoming.
It was nearly a year later, in a meeting at the ranch, that Murphy admitted he had never bought any insurance. Hammond was stunned.
“How he could come here year after year without insurance. … I was terribly upset about that,” Hammond said.
Hammond told Murphy that he was banned from the ranch, but after Murphy “squeezed out a tear” and apologized, promising again that he would obtain insurance, Hammond relented. Some time after that, Murphy finally did show up with an insurance certificate, Hammond said.
JoAnn Hammond, who helped found the Judith River Foundation in 2003, serving as its first vice president when Murphy was president, said she also kept asking Murphy to produce a full list of fossils found on their ranch. But all the Hammonds heard, year after year, was that with the exception of Leonardo, “nothing significant” had been discovered.
“After a couple of years, we just assumed they hadn’t found anything,” she said.
A startling bit of news
The summer Murphy resigned from the foundation and the field station, the Hammonds were startled when they learned what he had taken from their land. A paleontology student working at the field station that summer inventoried and photographed each fossil in the station’s collection, together with whatever field data accompanied each specimen.
When the inventory was complete, the Hammonds learned that 126 of the fossils at the station – most of them hadrosaur pieces, including vertebrae, brain case fragments, humerus bones and teeth – had come from their ranch.
“The Hammonds just about died,” said Sue Frary, an original member of the foundation board and now director of the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum. “They had no idea.”
Dixie Stordahl, a member of the Judith River Foundation board, said she was “really shocked” when she saw the inventory – shocked by the number of fossils and by the utter lack of scientific data accompanying them. Stordahl was one of Murphy’s earliest associates and the last member of the board to lose faith in him.
Frary said the foundation learned that unless Murphy was working on one of the big, high-profile projects, he didn’t bother to follow scientific protocol.
“There wasn’t so much as an index card associated with any of the bones,” she said. “That is the real tragedy. So much science has been lost.”
Brian Cornell, acting special agent for the BLM in Billings, said Murphy’s “reckless indifference” to the scientific value of what he found on federal land is “why we were so aggressive about this case.” There were some field notes attached to the fossils stolen from federal land, Cornell said, but no proper scientific data.
He said Murphy was not a scientist; he was a prospector looking for valuable material.
“All that scientific information was lost,” Cornell said of Murphy’s collecting habits. “It’s like going to a crime scene and collecting only shell casings.”
History for sale
Of additional concern to the Hammonds and members of the foundation is that no one knows what else was taken from the ranch and simply sold by Murphy, or by his son, Matt, a talented amateur paleontologist who worked alongside his father for most of his life.
Although the Hammonds said Murphy told them he never sold any fossils collected on their ranch and didn’t recall Matt having done so, Murphy subsequently told a Great Falls Tribune reporter that his son sold small fossils as a hobby. Tim Quarles, a Billings environmental consultant who began as a paying client on a dig and turned into one of Murphy’s longest-serving assistants, said he and other former associates witnessed Matt Murphy regularly selling fossils on eBay.
Frary said one of the investigators told her that Matt Murphy could collect as many as 75 teeth on a good day in the field. Only a handful of teeth ended up among the fossils identified as being from the Hammond ranch.
The Hammonds also learned that it wasn’t only a collection of individual bones and teeth that had been removed from their ranch without their knowledge. Their contract with Murphy referred specifically only to Leonardo, but the Hammonds assumed conditions of that contract applied to Murphy’s other activities. They acknowledge that the agreement was only verbal.
“We were pretty naïve in this because we’re pretty trusting,” Howie Hammond said. “We figured if Nate found something significant, he’d tell us about it.”
They didn’t know until seeing the inventory that a specimen called DAK had been found on their ranch. Named after the initials of a man who discovered it as a customer of Murphy’s, DAK had been displayed for years in the Phillips County Museum. It had been discovered when Elvis was being excavated, and it consisted of one of the longest, most complete tail sections of a juvenile duck-billed dinosaur ever found. Frary said Murphy told her in 2002 that DAK had been discovered near Saco.
If Murphy cultivated an ambiguous, confusing relationship with the Hammonds, he had a similar one with the foundation. In retrospect, board members say, they never should have accepted Murphy’s proposal to call the new organization the Judith River Foundation.
It was easy to confuse it with Murphy’s private business, the Judith River Dinosaur Institute. Joe Iacuzzo, an editor and promoter who eventually became manager of the Leonardo Project, said Murphy blurred the distinction between the institute and the foundation, leading people to think that fossils he partly owned were actually held in trust by the foundation.
Murphy’s contract with the Hammonds gave him half ownership in Leonardo, and the foundation understood that he gave the fossil to the foundation on loan. But that’s not what others were told.
“Nate, from the moment I met him, insisted that Leonardo was held in public trust,” Iacuzzo said. “We waited too late to insist on proof. … But again, he was so convincing and so sincere.”
The difference was crucial.
“A loan means you can take it back. A trust means you can’t,” Iacuzzo said.
The distinction nearly sunk plans, arranged by the Leonardo Project, to have Leonardo exhibited at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Most museums refuse to exhibit fossils unless they are held in public trust. To complete the arrangements with Houston, Murphy had to turn his half-ownership rights in Leonardo over to the foundation.
The case of Peanut
Meanwhile, the Hammonds learned that they had been misled about more than DAK. There was also the case of Peanut, the smallest and youngest brachylophosaurus discovered by Murphy’s teams. JoAnn Hammond said she remembers hearing from some of the diggers that “they were really excited about this juvenile they’d found,” but Murphy told them it consisted only of skull fragments.
And then when a dinosaur nicknamed Peanut was taken to the field station for preparation work – with an intact skull and nearly complete skeleton – the Hammonds still were not told it was from their ranch. It was only much later, when JoAnn Hammond was driving with a carload of other foundation board members to a dinosaur museum in Canada, that she learned Peanut had been found on their ranch.
Later still, while JoAnn Hammond was working at a Dino Days event at the field station, a man came in with a cast of Peanut’s skull, asking if anyone could repair a crack in it. Hammond was surprised because there were only a few casts and she knew who had them. She said she asked the man where he had gotten that one and he told her he had bought it for $200 from Murphy, after having been one of his paying customers.
It was still just possible that all of those incidents could have been explained away somehow. That was not to be the case with the small, turkey-size raptor found on the Hammond ranch in July 2002. It would prove to be Murphy’s undoing.
“I had a feeling the train wreck was coming, and this was going to be the train wreck,” Frary said.