‘Dinosaur 13’: A dinosaur named Sue


“Dinosaur 13” aired on CNN Films on December 11, 2014 at 9:00 EST. This paleontology documentary began August 12, 1990 in the Badlands of South Dakota. While the discovery of a dinosaur is fascinating, the program was dry and laborious television viewing. It was not written for anyone with an attention deficit. Yet, everyone should watch “Dinosaur 13”. It is a recurring story about small town citizens versus big federal governmental bureaucracy.

The documentary opens with the introduction of Black Hills Museum Institute owners, paleontologists and brothers Peter and Neal Larson, paleontologists, staff and volunteers of Black Hills Institute in Hill City, South Dakota. Susan Hendrickson, a field paleontologist of Black Hills Institute, was the initial discoverer of a fossilized Tyrannosaurus Rex on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation. The T. rex was named “Sue” in her honor.

Though not the first dinosaur fossil discovered, Sue was the first dinosaur fossil found in almost 80 percent completion. Most large specimen are at 40 percent of their remains. Sue, the Tyrannosaurus Rex, is one of the greatest paleontology discoveries of contemporary times.

The land where Sue was discovered belonged to rancher and Cheyenne tribal member Maurice Williams. The Larsons paid Williams $5,000 for ownership rights of Sue. Williams refused to sign a paper contract and insisted on a gentlemen agreement of transferred goods. The conversation of the sell between Williams and the Larsons was videotaped.

For the small town residents of Hill City, Sue belonged to them. The community loved her. Sue had the economic and scientific potential to turn Hill City, South Dakota into a huge tourist destination. On May 14, 1992, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, personnel from South Dakota Tech, personnel from other federal agencies and The National Guard came to the town of Hill City. Things changed.

Sue was confiscated and placed in long-termed storage by the federal government. The whole facility of Black Hills Museum Institute was searched by federal agents. All records and research were taken by the F. B. I. The Larsons and Black Hills Institute were accused of taking antiquities from United States federal lands without permission, including unlawfully taking trust property from Indian Reservations by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a branch of the U. S. Department of the Interior. The Cheyenne tribe said member and rancher Maurice Williams failed to purchase the required $100 permit to sell, therefore the ownership rights of the Black Hills Institute were forfeited. The F. B. I. investigation expanded into criminal charges of the Larsons participating in crimes of national and international proportions.

Convoluted accusations, lawsuits, indictments, arrests and trials incurred. United States District Judge Richard Battey ruled since fossils are mineralized bones, fossils are land. Sue was technically real estate. Judge Battey ruled an individual Native American cannot sell land in which the federal government holds in trust for him or her, without the permission of the federal government. The sell between Williams and the Larsons was null and void. Since Sue the Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil specimen was land, she rightfully belonged to the United States federal government and not the original discoverers and excavators from the Black Hills Museum Institute.

In the end, the Larsons, Black Hills Institute and associates were acquitted of 141 federal charges and convicted for eight counts. The Black Hills Institute as a corporation was convicted of misdemeanor theft, felony theft, false statements to customs and entry of goods by false statement. Peter Larson, paleontologist and President of Black Hills Museum Institute, was convicted of misdemeanor theft and transporting money. His felony offense was failure to fill out appropriate governmental custom forms. Peter Larson served two years in federal prison and fined $5,000.

Sue the most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil ever discovered was placed on auction at Sotheby’s, in New York City, New York, October 4th, 1997. She sold for 8.36 million dollars, which includes an additional auction house fee. Sue was purchased by the Chicago Field Museum with help from big name backers. Rancher and land owner Maurice Williams received tax-free 7.6 million dollars from the trust property sell, notwithstanding the original $5,000 from the Larsons. The federal government granted permission for the sale. Despite the outcome and loss of Sue, the Larsons and the Black Hills Institute in Hill City, South Dakota, now houses one of the finest dinosaur collections in the world.

A dinosaur named Sue is displayed in the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History, in Chicago, Illinois.

C. C. J. Vann
C. C. J. Vann is a geek cultural freelance journalist based in Atlanta, Georgia. Her blog is at ccjvann.com.