Pistol Packing Paleontologist

Pitt grad fights crime to save precious fossils

By Anthony Breznican
News Editor

At the end of its life, a prehistoric animal was crouched against the underbrush beside a river of thundering water. Days of rain made the river swell, pushing miles of mud and broken rock over the banks, and swallowing the squirming creature whole.

If it ever knew what was happening, it had no chance to escape.

Now the same rains that trapped the creature are setting it free. The South Dakota sky roars again with violent clouds churning against each other, sparking lightning and thunderclaps as they descend on the silent ocean of hardened sediment below.

The rain falls in torrents, pounding the gray stone with a sound like a million marbles smashing against concrete, burrowing into crevices, widening cracks, and washing away debris. First a claw, then a leg - an entire skeleton painstakingly emerges, embedded in the stone, as millions of years of rain wash away millions of years of rock.

When the rains are gone, the sun scorches the rock dry, and people flock to this far corner of Badlands National Park to witness the escape of animals that time has trapped. But some come with more than spectating in mind.

Armed with backpacks and boxes heavy with rock hammers, fine chisels, and delicate drilling equipment, fossil hunters scour the park for signs of specimens below the rock.

They're not here for research or to collect specimens for a museum. They're commercial fossil dealers working on an international, multimillion-dollar black market that loots national parks and disrupts scientific research around the world.

Pitt graduate Vince Santucci is the man the federal government has chosen to stop them.

Santucci, who studied geology and paleontology at Pitt as both an undergraduate and grad student, is a real-life "Indiana Jones," the nation's only pistol-packing paleontologist.

"I finished my graduate work in '91 and started work in the National Park Service, and I was recruited by the FBI to assist in a multi-agency investigation into fossil theft," Santucci said. "Because so much money is involved in these deals, there's a lot of danger and a lot more illegal activity involved."

Since collectors are forbidden to take fossils from national parks, and many important fossils are found there, data must be forged about the true sources and circumstances of the discovery to avoid prosecution.

But this practice can render the fossils useless to science if they ever fall into the hands of legitimate scientists.

"When you research these items, some of the most important questions are 'Where did they come from?,' 'How old are they?,' and 'How do you know?'" Santucci said. "You can tell all those things based on where and how the fossil was recovered, but with stolen fossils, the locality data is falsified when they're sold.

The real data may never be recovered, and this contaminates the scientific database around the world, especially if the fossil is a very rare or previously undiscovered species."

Unfortunately, the rarer specimens often fetch the greatest price in the shortest amount of time, according to Santucci.

"These people are like grave robbers. They'd go out and loot the whole area if they could," he said. "Many important specimens are lost that way."

Commercial fossil dealers can carry an incredible variety of merchandise, from the rather innocent fern fossils or tiny shells worth only a few dollars, to things like entire Triceratops skulls worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Some dealers say the government doesn't protect America's fossil riches and that commercial dealers actually protect the specimens from the elements by taking them from their natural environment.

"The skeletons are harder than the sedimentary rock around them because they're crystalized, but its true - they can still erode away," Santucci said. "In a way, the dealers are protecting the fossils, but they're destroying their research value by not letting scientists do it."

Theft, tax fraud, customs violations, and a host of other crimes united agents from the FBI, the IRS, Customs, and the National Park Service to hunt down fossil dealers with Santucci.

"They had to hide their income and smuggle these fossils out of the country because taking the fossils is such an illegal activity," he said.

Their efforts resulted in a raid on the world's largest commercial fossil dealer and the recovery of a perfectly preserved Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton nicknamed "Sue."

Sue's worth is estimated at around $5 million, but Santucci said that price can go as far as $12 million at an auction.

"People in labs and doing research for museums can't afford to pay that cost," Santucci said. "These precious fossils end up in the hands of a private collector, away from the public where they really belong. These remains were taken from public land. They belong to everyone."

As part of a team of FBI agents, Santucci raided the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research in South Dakota in 1993, uncovering not only Sue, but a mountain of evidence implicating the institute and its director, Peter Larson, in nationwide fossil theft from national parks.

They also discovered that leaks within the Department of the Interior were providing Larson with information about Santucci and his colleagues.

"[Larson] knew I opposed what he was doing and was working with the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology to develop stronger fossil protection legislation," Santucci said. "He was trying to get evidence to discredit us, discredit that movement, and destroy our investigation of his business."

Santucci could not comment further, saying only that these discoveries have sparked new investigations of government workers involved with the Black Hills Institute.

The controversial raid brought widespread public attention to the dangers of "fossil rustlers." A Feb. 25 "NOVA" documentary about the Black Hills case featuring interviews with Santucci and other members of his team has also brought attention back to the case.

Larson maintains his innocence, but was convicted of multiple felony and misdemeanor charges ranging from from fraud to customs violations and government theft. Currently in a federal prison in Colorado, he is appealing the convictions.

But the case is shrouded in still more controversy. Larson discovered the Tyrannosaurus on a ranch on a Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He says his hunt was legal because he provided the rancher with $5000 to search the land.

Santucci said that complicates the matter, but it is still government theft.

"Because it's an Indian reservation, both a federal permit and tribal permit were necessary for Peter Larson to legally collect that specimen. The rancher's permission wasn't enough. It was reservation land and belonged to all Native Americans," Santucci said. "He knew he needed these things but also knew he would be refused. Peter Larson knowingly broke the law."

After complaints from the rancher and members of the Sioux tribe the local US attorney ordered the dinosaur confiscated.

Today, Sue is in government storage and is technically still owned by the rancher. Santucci said he's heard rumors that Sotheby's auction house will try to sell it in April.

This case may aid in the completion of Santucci's mission for stricter fossil hunting regulations, serving as an example of the damage commercial dealers can do to scientific research, even when it's performed on private lands.

Some have attacked the investigation as an invasion by the government, but Santucci maintains new legislation will benefit Americans through the research it provides.

"I'm not out to stop amateurs from digging through rocks for their own personal collections. That's actually encouraged," he said. "But in places like the Petrified Forest in Arizona, if every person who goes there breaks off a piece of petrified wood, thered be nothing left."

He said amateurs can assist researchers by digging out fossils on designated sites rather than doing it on their own.

"That's a positive way of maintaining a hobby - learning on your own and assisting scientists in the process," he said.

Many of the reasons for Santucci's crusade are personal, he says.

"For young kids, dinosaurs are the easiest way to get them interested in science," he said. "We need to make sure our most important discoveries are not lost because of one person's greed. We may lose more than just valuable data. We may lose the inspiration for a new generation of scientists."

Currently on hiatus from his work as a ranger at Petrified Forest National Park, Santucci is delivering lectures at Carnegie Museum about national parks.

Because Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum boasts one of the most important dinosaur exhibits in the world, Santucci hopes his hometown influence will raise interest in science from grade schools to universities.

"I remember sitting in professor Harold Rawlin's paleontology class here at Pitt, and I never dreamed my life would be so changed by science in such a positive way," Santucci said. "I only hope discoveries that might make powerful changes in other people's lives aren't lost. That's why I do what I do."