Dinosaur Fossil Thief to be Sentenced, May Spend Year in Jail

Federal prosecutors say dinosaur hunter and fossil thief Nathan Murphy should spend a year behind bars as a warning to others who steal and sell bones.

Murphy is set to be sentenced in U.S. District Court on Wednesday after pleading guilty in April to a single count of theft of government property.

Prosecutors said he stole 13 dinosaur bones from central Montana's Hell Creek badlands in 2006.

The case is providing a rare glimpse into the black-market fossil trade while sinking the reputation of the 51-year-old, self-taught paleontologist who rose to fame on his discovery of the world's best-preserved fossil, known as Leonardo, in 2000.

Murphy was sentenced last month to 60 days in jail on a separate state count involving a stolen raptor fossil. Federal prosecutors want him to serve an additional 10 months on the federal charge.

"Murphy's sentence should send a message to those that engage in for-profit resource hunting and amateurs alike," U.S. Attorney William Mercer wrote in the government's sentencing recommendation.

The government is also seeking $17,325 in restitution for damage done to public lands during Murphy's excavations.

Murphy is seeking a far more lenient sentence — three years probation plus restitution equal to the government's recommendation.

"This case is a lesson well learned," Murphy's attorney, Michael Moses, wrote in documents submitted to the court.

Murphy runs a business in Billings that charges customers $200 a day to participate in dinosaur digs.

He was paleontology director at the Dinosaur Field Station in Malta, Montana, for 15 years before resigning in July 2007 — about the same time state and federal authorities began investigating his activities.

Murphy's theft case was pending when President Barack Obama signed a law in March setting a penalty of up to five years for stealing bones or other fossils from public land.

The Paleontological Resource Protection Act is the country's first-ever law to specifically protect fossils. It came too late to apply to Murphy's case.