News and Press Releases

Nathan Lee Murphy Pleads Guilty in U.S. Federal Cour

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Bill Mercer, United States Attorney for the District of Montana, announced today that during a federal court session in Great Falls on April 14, 2009, before U.S. Magistrate Judge R. Keith Strong, NATHAN LEE MURPHY, a 51-year-old resident of Billings, pled guilty to theft of government property. Sentencing is set for July 9, 2009. He is currently released on special conditions.

In an Offer of Proof filed by the United States, the government stated it would have proved at trial the following:

In 1993, MURPHY started the Judith River Dinosaur Institute (JRDI), a private, for-profit, paleo-outfitting business. JRDI was based in Malta. MURPHY is the sole owner of the JRDI and provided guided dinosaur "hunting" trips.

MURPHY leased access to private ranch lands to conduct his trips. Clients paid approximately $200 per day to "hunt" for dinosaur fossils. Guides, transportation and meals were all provided by MURPHY.

In 1994, shortly after his arrival in the Malta area, MURPHY discovered a significant fossil, a fully articulated Brachylophosaurus, nick-named "Elvis." MURPHY immediately began excavating the site without checking the land's ownership status. It was later determined that "Elvis" was in fact on BLM land. MURPHY did not have an excavation permit, nor would the BLM issue MURPHY a permit. MURPHY ceased all excavation and the site was turned over to the Museum of the Rockies. No charges were filed against MURPHY for the illegal excavation of the "Elvis" site.

In 1998, MURPHY contracted with Howard and Jean Hammond to prospect for fossil bones on their private ranch lands near Malta. The Hammond ranch is comprised of approximately 50% private land and 50% BLM or State land. Howard Hammond would

MURPHY about the landownership of the ranch and showing MURPHY a land status map that showed all the private, State and BLM lands. Hammond would have testified that he was not concerned about MURPHY getting too close to BLM land because MURPHY knew that the "Elvis" fossil had come from nearby BLM lands. Hammond also remembered warning MURPHY in approximately 2005 that he was near BLM land when he was excavating in an area near the Little Cottonwood Drainage.

In 2003, MURPHY and others in the Malta area founded the Judith River Foundation (JRF), a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. The express purpose of the JRF was to be a repository for all of the fossils collected by those associated with the JRDI. The JRF leased and operated the Judith River Dinosaur Field Station in Malta to handle the fossils recovered by the JRDI.

MURPHY continued to look for fossils with his for-profit JRDI from 2000 to 2006. MURPHY appeared to have largely confined his trips to private property. At least one customer would have testified that MURPHY was using GPS equipment and a mapping program as early as 2002.

Customers of MURPHY would have testified that in 2006 he carried topographical maps and GPS units during dinosaur "hunting" trips. Customers also confirmed seeing MURPHY log in site locations and names to the GPS units.

In February of 2006, MURPHY took a two week GPS course offered by the Phillips County Agriculture Extension Office. Class topics included collecting data waypoints in the field and plotting those data points on topographical mapping software. The software enables the user to plot data locations on a map that shows topography and land

The maps can be printed for field use. The software was available to be loaned out to anyone in the Malta area.

In August of 2006, MURPHY and several JRDI paying clients were alleged to have illegally excavated and removed an extremely rare fossil raptor dinosaur from private lands belonging to Bruce Bruckner. Bruckner's property lies adjacent to the Hammond ranch. MURPHY did not have permission to excavate on Bruckner's property. The raptor taken from Bruckner's land is valued at approximately $300,000. The Bruckner fossils are the focus of the pending charges with the State of Montana.

During the course of the investigation into the Hammond and Bruckner issues, it was discovered that on the morning of August 10, 2006, MURPHY and several others found two separate areas that contained dinosaur fossils. The two sites were on the slope of a

Hammond ranch. The drainage is referred to as the Little Cottonwood Drainage.

The site on the upper area of the slope was named the "Sue 2" site. The site on the lower area of the slope was named the "Rodney" site. Both sites were GPS'd and a Cadastral Survey was conducted to determine land ownership. Both sites were determined to be on BLM land.

Customers would have testified that MURPHY led the entire group of crew members and clients to the site in vehicles on August 10, 2006. Customers would have testified that they trusted MURPHY to know where the land ownership boundaries were.

Numerous photographs were taken of MURPHY and his customers excavating both the "Rodney" and the "Sue2" sites. Those photographs were later posted on MURPHY'S website.

Customers recalled MURPHY taking lots of photos of the "Rodney" and "Sue 2" sites but did not recall MURPHY drawing any site maps or doing any grid work. Customers would have testified that MURPHY carried GPS units and logged in the sites locations. The fossils removed from the sites were taken back to the Field Station in Malta.

Customers would have testified that when the "Rodney" and "Sue 2" sites were found, MURPHY commented to others that the sites were near where the "Elvis" fossil had been found previously on BLM property.

The "Elvis" site is in the same drainage as the "Rodney" and "Sue 2" sites. The "Rodney" and "Sue 2" sites are 918 feet from the "Elvis" site.

When law enforcement discovered the "Rodney" and "Sue 2" sites, they found evidence of excavation including tool marks in the bedrock, discarded small fossil pieces, tailing piles, Plaster of Paris residue and segments of plaster-enriched burlap. The "Rodney" site initially produced 13 specimens. The recovered elements include one theropod

The 12 hadrosaur bones include a scapula, ischium, three fibula, two vertebra, astragalus, metatarsal II, pes phalanx III-1, and two ungals. The "Sue 2" site also produced numerous specimens. The recovered elements include vertebrae and distal ulnas. The value of the fossils removed from both the "Rodney" and the "Sue 2" sites is approximately $3,100.

On October 3, 2007, a search warrant was executed on the Field Station in Malta. Law enforcement recovered all of the fossils removed from the "Rodney" and "Sue 2" excavations and transported them to the Museum of the Rockies where the fossils are currently secured.

After discovering the excavations at the "Rodney" and "Sue 2" sites, a complete paleontological damage assessment was completed by the BLM. The estimated cost to complete the additional public lands re-survey, paleontological survey, site damage assessment and rehabilitation of the damaged sites is estimated by the BLM at $17,325.

During an interview conducted by law enforcement, MURPHY admitted to digging at the "Rodney" and "Sue 2" sites in July or August of 2006. He also admitted he led the crew and clients to the areas the day the sites were discovered and admitted to removing the bones. MURPHY admitted the site was very close to the "Elvis" site. He admitted he had taken a GPS course in February of 2006. MURPHY admitted he never purchased any BLM land ownership maps and that he never looked at a map to determine land ownership of the "Rodney" and "Sue 2" sites although he had GPS coordinates.

United States Attorney Mercer noted that the preservation of paleontological resources on federal land is important in Montana given the significant dinosaur finds that have been made here. "Excavation on federal lands is not permissible unless authorized by permit by the federal agency entrusted with land management. Unauthorized takings will be investigated and prosecuted," Mercer stated. Mercer added that his only regret with today's proceeding was the absence of the lead investigator, BLM Special Agent Tom Madsen, who died at the age of 42 near the conclusion of his investigation of the activities of Mr. Murphy. "Tom's skill, dedication, and energy were the catalyst for this case," Mercer added.

These are the public's resources," says Gene Terland, State Director for the Bureau of Land Management in Montana. "We are entrusted with managing and protecting these resources. BLM law enforcement is a key part of that management function." Terland adds, "This is an example of the outstanding relationship we have with the U.S. Attorney's Office, state and local agencies. We will continue to ensure protection of these irreplaceable resources."

MURPHY faces possible penalties of 10 years in prison, a $250,000 fine and 3 years supervised release.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jessica T. Fehr prosecuted the case for the United States.

The investigation was conducted by the Bureau of Land Management and the Montana Department of Justice Division of Criminal Investigation. A special note of gratitude is extended to the family of BLM Special Agent Tom Madsen who passed away before he could see the culmination of this investigation.

A copy of the Offer of Proof can be obtained by contacting Sally Frank at (406) 247-4638.



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