South Dakota Court Battle Set to Review Ownership of Juvenile T-Rex Fossil

A Feb. 5 trial date has been set in a 3-year court battle for ownership of a juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex nicknamed "Tinker."

In April, a federal appeals court ruled a lease between Harding County and the fossil hunters who dug up the 65-million-year-old fossil was valid, reversing last year's lower court ruling that voided the agreement on a technicality.

In June 2006, U.S. District Judge Richard Battey said the lease didn't follow South Dakota law, which requires leases exceeding 120 days and $500 to go before a public hearing.

But in its written decision in April, the three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the county failed to present evidence of the lease's fair market value at the time it was entered.

Tinker, excavated north of Belle Fourche in the summer of 1998, was thought to be the first nearly complete skeleton of a juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex ever found.

Dinosaur experts determined the specimen was young based on its unfused backbones and gangly appearance, particularly in the shin and ankle.

But the skeleton's large jaws and massive bone-crushing teeth suggested it ate an adult diet, even though it didn't appear strong enough to wrestle large prey to the ground. Scientists surmised that perhaps one of its parents hunted the meals and Tinker showed up later to munch.

The federal lawsuit, filed in August 2004, alleged that Ron Frithiof, of Austin, Texas, Kim Hollrah of Iowa and Melody Harrell of Texas wrongfully and illegally removed the skeletal remains from county property. The suit accused them of engaging in fraud, trespass and a civil conspiracy.

According to the lawsuit, the county found out about Tinker's discovery in May 2003 and sent notice to rescind the lease. The suit accused the defendants of "suggesting as facts, that which were not true," "suppressing facts which were true" and "other acts fitted to deceive."

Tinker won't be traveling anywhere soon. The T. rex is in storage in Pennsylvania under the jurisdiction of a federal bankruptcy court after the man hired to restore the fossils filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection.