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T.rex Comes Home

By Gretchen Kell, Public Affairs
Posted July 14, 1999

Following a lengthy international search, the FBI has returned a priceless Tyrannosaurus rex jawbone missing since 1994 to UC's Museum of Paleontology.

"We're thrilled to have it back," said Mark Goodwin, principal museum scientist. "This specimen is very distinct, in part because it's well-preserved. And there aren't a lot of T. rex specimens around."

At a joint press conference July 2 held by UC Berkeley and the FBI, federal agents presented Goodwin and museum director David Lindberg with the long-lost, 68-million-year-old fossil. It was unearthed by campus paleontologists in 1986 on federal land in Montana.

The jaw's rear portion was not taken. At the press conference, the two pieces were dramatically reunited by Goodwin and FBI Special Agent in Charge Bruce Gebhardt, head of the San Francisco FBI office.

Because the investigation is not yet complete, Gebhardt deflected press queries about "who dunnit," saying only that the FBI would hand over its findings to the U.S. Attorney, who would decide whether to press charges.

The FBI became involved in the case "because of the significance of this particular artifact," said Gebhardt, and because it involved the theft of federal property.

Goodwin added that the incident illustrates how the high prices dinosaur bones command on the commercial market -- a T. rex skeleton fetched $8 million at a 1997 Sotheby's auction -- lead to crimes such as this and jeopardize the use of fossils for scientific research.

Goodwin said he first noticed the bone was gone in late 1994, just before the museum moved from McCone Hall into renovated space, complete with state-of-the-art storage and security, in the Valley Life Sciences Building.

Since many professors, staff members and graduate students use the museum's fossils for research and teaching, Goodwin said he decided not to "press the panic button right away."

He also knew that, if it had been stolen, putting out a public notice and posting the bone's photograph on the Internet would send the thief underground. "Like stolen art," he said, "the fossil would have disappeared until things cooled off."

In 1997, one of Goodwin's colleagues saw a replica of a T. rex lower jaw at a private museum in Wyoming.

"He told me it looked like the one that was stolen or had been missing," said Goodwin. "Another colleague went there and took a picture. It was a dead ringer. This confirmed for me that someone had the original and was making replicas for sale."

The missing jaw also showed up in a commercial catalog of fossil replicas. When Goodwin called the vendor to say he was interested in buying a replica, he was told it would take some time, since the replicas came from a fossil dealer in Europe.

"I asked who the dealer was," said Goodwin, "and then I called the FBI."

Goodwin provided the FBI with photographs and scientific drawings of the missing fossil and helped agents understand the commercial fossil market. This spring he received the phone call he'd been waiting for.

"They said they had the jaw in Europe and would like to send it back to Berkeley. I put together a shipping container and gave it to the FBI and it was forwarded overseas. From there it went to the FBI in Washington, D.C., then to the FBI in California."

Goodwin, a member of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, an international group concerned with protecting and conserving vertebrate fossils for scientific and educational use, says there is growing pressure from commercial fossil dealers to make it legal for them to collect and sell vertebrate fossils from federal lands.

"As a scientist and educator, I'm against that," he says. "Fossils on private lands belong to the landowner. But it would be a disaster for the public and for science to open up public lands to the commercial collecting of fossils. The information lost would be tremendous."

The discussion has reached Washington, D.C., where the Department of the Interior recently held a one-day public meeting on federal paleontology policies.


July 14 - August 17, 1999 (Volume 28, Number 1)
Copyright 1999, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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