Documentary on 8th Cir. Case on T. Rex Bones Kicks Off Sundance

By Aditi Mukherji, JD on January 23, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

In 1990, paleontologist Pete Larson discovered the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex on record in the badlands of South Dakota.

But Larson's honeymoon period following his stunning discovery was short-lived. A legal battle of equally epic proportions ensued with multiple parties jumping at ownership of the 65-million-year-old bones -- even the federal government.

The historic discovery -- and equally historic legal battle -- is the subject of a new documentary titled "Dinosaur 13" that was top-featured at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

Bones of Contention

The protracted legal battle began when the federal government seized the skeleton of the massive dinosaur, known as Sue (a name foreshadowing the legal drama?).

The government contended that Larson and his Black Hills Institute didn't have the right to possess the bones. A battalion of South Dakotans protested the seizure, scenes of which are captured in the documentary, according to the Rapid City Journal.

The following parties were all ensnared in a legal row over ownership of the bones: Larson and the institute, the FBI, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and a landowner, Maurice Williams, on whose property the bones were discovered.

The government prevailed and the story took a turn for the criminal.

Conviction Set in (Fossilized) Stone

"I faced the longest criminal trial in South Dakota history, and was sentenced to two years in prison, all because I failed to fill out some forms. It was a scary time," Peter Larson told the Rapid City Journal.

Well, it was a little more complicated than that.

Larson and his colleagues were indicted on charges connected to the discovery and sale of fossils. Although Larson's Sue find attracted the spotlight on his fossil collection and sales practices, his conviction -- which was affirmed by the Eighth Circuit -- was actually unrelated to the discovery of beloved Sue.

Larson was locked away for 18 months on two felony counts and two misdemeanor counts related to fossil collection and sales.

Bones to Pick and Digging His Way Out

If you want to catch a glimpse of Sue in her full glory, you'll have to venture out of the Eighth Circuit and make your way to Chicago as the skeleton was eventually purchased for $8.36 million "bones" by The Field Museum, boasting the largest amount ever paid for a fossil, according to the museum's press release.

Even though South Dakota lost the battle over the bones, it's still a pretty exciting story. It's certainly not every day that an Eighth Circuit case becomes fodder for a high-profile documentary that is sold to Lionsgate and CNN Films for $1 million.

During a Q&A session following the screening of "Dinosaur 13" at Sundance, Larson's attorney and the federal government's attorney traded barbs on whether the indictment and prosecution of Larson was personal, reports the Los Angeles Times .

With that dispute raging on, Larson's attorney expressed a desire for the film to be used as a vehicle to seek a pardon for Larson. The idea drew a rabble-rousing round of applause.

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