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Murphy gets jail time in raptor-fossil theft

Murphy gets jail time in raptor-fossil theft

UPDATE: 6:53 p.m.:

Amateur paleontologist Nate Murphy has been sentenced to 60 days in jail and fined $2,500 for stealing a raptor fossil from a ranch near Malta.

Phillips County District Judge John McKeon imposed the sentence last week in Malta, even though a plea agreement recommended no jail time. The jail term is one of the conditions of a five-year deferred sentence ordered by McKeon, during which time Murphy is to be on probation.

That means that, if he fails to live up to the terms and conditions imposed by the judge, his probation could be revoked and he could go to prison for five years.

Murphy, 51, pleaded guilty to the felony theft charge in March, and he is to be sentenced July 9 on a separate charge of stealing fossils from federal land, to which he also pleaded guilty.

According to a transcript of the sentencing proceedings held last Wednesday, McKeon said Murphy's own statements to the court, as well as information included in a presentence investigation report, "clearly show evidence of criminal thinking and criminal conduct."

McKeon said Murphy will have to serve 60 consecutive days in a detention center sometime within the next six months and will have to pay $50 a day for his incarceration. Murphy's attorney, Michael Moses of Billings, said Murphy can serve the 60 days in either a jail or a pre-release center.

The judge's order stipulates that Murphy can be released during the day to take part in a cognitive and behavioral modification program approved by his probation officer. McKeon said such a program "will address criminal thinking errors."

In addition to the $2,500 fine, Murphy was ordered to pay $400 restitution for a raptor claw that was sold by his son, Matt, to a man in Philadelphia. The claw has been returned, so the $400 will go to the buyer. Murphy also was ordered to pay $250 to Bruce Bruckner for a cast of the raptor that could not be found.

Murphy pleaded guilty to stealing the raptor from land owned by Bruckner and leased to Howie and JoAnn Hammond, on whose ranch Murphy had permission to dig. Court documents said Murphy tried to hide the discovery of the raptor from other paleontologists and from the Hammonds, when he still thought the raptor had been found on their property.

He later sent the raptor fossil to the Black Hills Institute for molding and casting. The turkey-sized raptor was esti-mated to be worth between $150,000 and $400,000.

Murphy, formerly the curator of paleontology with the Dinosaur Field Station in Malta, became famous when he discovered, on the Hammonds' ranch in 2000, a plant-eating dinosaur nicknamed Leonardo. The mummified fossil is considered one of the best-preserved dinosaur specimens ever found.

At the sentencing, McKeon said the raptor fossil found on the Bruckner property in 2002 was known to be an important, articulated — or connected — fossil as soon as it was discovered. However, it was not until five years later that Murphy disclosed the discovery to the Hammonds, whom he believed were the landowners.

In the meantime, McKeon said, Murphy claimed to have found the raptor near Saco, and he contracted with the Black Hills Institute to mold the fossil and prepare casts from the molding. The contract stipulated that Murphy's private business, the Judith River Dinosaur Institute, would receive 20 percent of the royalties on sales of the casts.

The terms of the contract make it clear that Murphy "sought to gain financially from this discovery," the judge said.

As a kind of side note during the sentencing, McKeon lectured Murphy on his failure to record proper scientific data for hundreds of fossil specimens he collected over the years. McKeon said Murphy's actions showed a "reckless indifference" to the public value of the fossils.

"A lie and deception in this field of paleontology really means that chapters in the history of this planet have missing pieces," McKeon told Murphy. "That's the real tragedy."

Murphy has since moved to Billings and runs the Judith River Dinosaur Institute here, taking paying customers on paleontological digs. McKeon's order sets out a detailed list of conditions with which Murphy will have to comply in running that business.

He will be required to provide a list of landowners and clients to his probation officer and to provide a map and GPS coordinates for all dig sites. He was further ordered to become familiar with and comply with all standards and practices for managing fossils on federal lands, including "policies for the inventorying, monitoring, protection of fossils and curation of fossils."

Murphy said Monday, as he has in the past, that, after he is sentenced on the federal charges in July, he will be able to tell the full story of what happened to him. He said the people interviewed by state investigators had a financial interest in the fossils he discovered and were not entirely truthful in their accounts.

"Some of it is based on truth, but a lot of it is twisted," he said.

After his federal case is settled, Murphy said, "things are going to surface that are going to be germane to the whole picture."

Moses, Murphy's attorney, noted that 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 six months later put the cookie back in."

On the federal charge of stealing fossils from Bureau of Land Management land, Murphy pleaded guilty on April 14. The maximum penalty is 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, but prosecutors have said they are unlikely to seek prison time.

Reporter Matt Brown of The Associated Press ctributed to this story.


Amateur paleontologist Nate Murphy has been sentenced to 60 days in jail and fined $2,500 for stealing a raptor fossil from a ranch near Malta.

Phillips County District Judge John McKeon imposed the sentence last week in Malta, even though the plea agreement recommended no jail time. Murphy pleaded guilty to the felony theft charge in March, and he is to be sentenced July 9 on a separate charge of stealing fossils from federal land, to which he also pleaded guilty.

McKeon could not be reached for comment today, and Catherine Truman, the assistant state attorney general who prosecuted the case, said she couldn't give any details on the sentencing until a transcript of the judge's order had been prepared and signed by McKeon.

But Murphy's attorney, Michael Moses of Billings, did give some details of the sentence. Except for the jail term, Moses said, McKeon closely followed the plea agreement, going into great detail about how Murphy is to conduct any future paleontological digs.

The 60-day sentence can be served at any time within six months, Moses said, and can be served either in a jail or a pre-release center. In addition to the $2,500 fine, Murphy was ordered to pay $400 restitution for a raptor claw that was not recovered, and $250 for a cast of the raptor that could not be found.

Moses said the claw was sold by Murphy's son, Matt, but that is wasn't clear whether the claw was even part of the specimen Murphy was accused of stealing.

Murphy pleaded guilty to stealing the raptor from land owned by Bruce Bruckner and leased to Howie and JoAnn Hammond, on whose ranch Murphy had permission to dig. Court documents said Murphy tried to hide the discovery of the raptor from other paleontologists and from the Hammonds, when he still thought the raptor had been found on their property.

He later sent the raptor fossil to the Black Hills Institute for molding and casting. The turkey-sized raptor was estimated be worth between $150,000 and $400,000.

Moses said the sentence calls for Murphy to remain on probation for five years, though he might be entitled to early termination of probation if he complies with all the conditions imposed on him by the court.

He was also ordered to participate in a criminal-thinking program offered by the state Department of Corrections, Moses said.

Murphy said Monday, as he has in the past, that after he is sentenced on the federal charges in July, he will be able to tell the full story of what happened to him. He said the people interviewed by state investigators had a financial interest in the fossils he discovered and were not entirely truthful in their accounts.

"Some of it is based on truth, but a lot of it is twisted," he said.

After his federal case is settled, Murphy said, "things are going to surface that are going to be germane to the whole picture."

On the federal charge of stealing fossils from BLM land, Murphy pleaded guilty on April 14. The maximum penalty is 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, but prosecutors have said they are unlikely to seek prison time.

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