Dead for 67 million years, the Tyrannosaurus rex named Sue still has the power to trample and wound those who get close to her.
Her unveiling Wednesday at the Field Museum is sure to be a spectacle deserving of one of the greatest discoveries in the history of paleontology. But despite the fame and fortune that Sue's discovery and sale conferred upon several people, she has caused as much torment as triumph.
Because of Sue, friendships and marriages have fractured, and the business of the man who pulled the fossil from a bluff was nearly ruined when he went to jail.
Sue's noisy appearance on the scene also has upset the conventions of paleontology. Landowners have demanded the return of fossils they long ago let museums dig up and carry away. Fortune hunters have raided dig sites and stolen valuable bones from them, and academic paleontologists have complained that once-friendly landowners now demand hefty search fees and sign away ownership of any valuable fossils they might find.
Found on a Native American's ranch in South Dakota in 1990, Sue is both a scientific wonder and a sure-fire museum hit, a fact underscored dramatically when the Field Museum purchased the dinosaur on Oct. 4, 1997, for an astonishing bid of $8.36 million at a Sotheby's New York auction house.
By most measures, the person who should be happiest about Sue is Maurice Williams, the Lakota rancher on whose land the fossil was recovered. He took home $7.6 million of the money the museum paid for Sue; the rest went to Sotheby's as its commission. But he cattleman didn't get the money without Sue first extracting a measure of pain.
Once he realized Sue was one of history's great dinosaur fossils, the biggest, most complete T. rex skeleton ever found, Williams reneged on the $5,000 deal he made with the commercial collectors who discovered the bones. Because it had been recorded on videotape, he was held up for some public ridicule when he denied the transaction.
More seriously, because his ranch lies within the Cheyenne River Sioux Indian Reservation, he had to face down his own tribe in a bitter legal fight. The tribal council claimed Sue as tribal property, seeing the dinosaur skeleton as a means of alleviating poverty as an attraction to draw tourists and their money to the reservation.
"Our reservation has the 14th- and 29th-poorest counties in the country," Steve Emery, the tribal lawyer, said last week in a telephone interview. "We do not have a tribal casino here. We thought that dinosaur fossil could have been the foundation for a (tourist) museum."
The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Sue's fossil bones technically were a constituent of the soil, part of the land, and belonged to the landowner, Williams.
Williams decided to auction Sue, openly intending to extract as much money as possible from the unexpected gold mine. He didn't care if the highest bidder was a private collector who could deny access to the bones to scientists wanting to study the fossil. He said he expected to get about $1 million dollars for Sue and was astonished as everybody else when the bidding went more than eight times that high.
The windfall turned a lot of heads on the poverty-stricken reservation.
"Everybody is knowledgeable about the amount of money (Sue) brought into our family," Williams, father of four grown children, said in a recent telephone interview. "What we got out of the thing, we're handling it pretty well. Some of the children have used it for education and whatever.
"People here don't talk anymore about that thing."
Even though scientists know there are other exquisite fossils at Sue's excavation site, Williams said he no longer allows dinosaur prospecting on his property.
"People can't come on to our place unless it's for business, and that is cattle and agriculture business," he said. He refuses to say why.
The two people Sue heaped the most suffering on are brothers Peter and Neal Larson, owners of the Black Hills Institute of Hill City, S.D., the commercial fossil company that found Sue's bones.
Long before Sue's discovery, the Larsons had built their business on a reputation for highly skilled fossil preparations and exhibit mountings, selling them to a variety of private collectors and public museums, including the Field Museum.
When one of their employees, Susan Hendrickson, found Sue on Williams' land, the Larsons thought the extraordinary fossil would make a dream come true. They were going to build a non-profit museum in Hill City, their hometown, drawing tourists from nearby Mount Rushmore.
Instead, the legal battles Sue sparked nearly bankrupted them and sent Peter Larson to prison on federal charges that many South Dakotans came to regard as an abuse of prosecutorial power.
The U.S. attorney's office in South Dakota, setting out to prove that the Larsons had illegally taken Sue and other fossils from federal lands, spent years and millions of dollars investigating the institute, raiding the company and carting off fossils and business records on several occasions.
In the resulting six-week trial, however, out of 146 felony charges, the jury convicted Peter Larson on two charges of failing to declare several thousand dollars he had carried with him on two business trips outside the U.S.
The judge sentenced Larson to 2 years in federal prison.
"I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy," Larson said. "This was so hard on my wife, worse for her than for me. On every visiting day she traveled hundreds of miles and was there for me. But the whole ordeal drained her, and when I got out (on Dec. 8, 1998) she decided she didn't want to be married anymore. That was the hardest thing, to lose her."
Paleontologists cheered when the Field Museum managed to land Sue, assuring that she will remain in this country, available always for research and public education.
But the steep price the auction forced on her, many fear, was a distressing setback for paleontology. After the auction, many landowners in areas where dinosaur fossils are found began to demand money from already underfunded museum and university paleontologists for the privilege of looking for fossils. Landowners also want rights over any fossils found.
"We just don't go looking on private land anymore," said Jack Horner, curator at the Museum of the Rockies dinosaur museum in Bozeman, Mont., and the model for the paleontologist hero of the "Jurassic Park" book and film.
"We used to have handshake agreements with ranchers to go on their land, collect fossils and bring them to our museum," Horner said. "Now I've had ranchers demand I give back fossils I collected on a handshake decades ago, figuring they are worth millions. They aren't."
Horner said he now concentrates his bone hunting in the half-billion acres of federal public lands, where it is illegal for anyone but qualified scientists to collect vertebrate fossils. Even there, paleontologists have had bones stolen from their digging sites.
"I have had sites raided and fossils stolen from me," Horner said, "so that now we keep where we are digging a secret."
As public fascination with dinosaurs has risen, selling their bones to collectors has become a small industry through specialty shops, auction houses and on-line marketing. The University of Chicago's stellar paleontologist Paul Sereno recently was appalled when he saw advertising for an on-line auction of dinosaur teeth from Africa on the Discovery cable television network, buttressed with footage from a Discovery channel documentary of one of Sereno's African expeditions.
"I won't be filmed by Discovery again in the foreseeable future," Sereno said last week. "I refuse."
The teeth in the online auction were looted from a site in Morocco, he said.
Looting ruins fossils' scientific value, Sereno said, because, by studying them carefully first in the ground, scientists can gather crucial data about their age and their environment when the dinosaurs lived.
"With prospectors carrying off bones for commercial sale before scientists can study them in the ground," Sereno said, "we are losing information on an escalating pace."
Sue's auction placed the Field and other museums in an awkward position. John Flynn, head of the Field Museum's geology department, also is president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, the professional scientific association that opposes commercial sales of vertebrate fossils such as Sue.
"We weren't happy to be in that situation to begin with," said Flynn of the museum having to bid millions for Sue, but it was necessary "to ensure she would be in a public institution, available to science."
The price Sue commanded may well prove to be an aberration, as no other known dinosaur fossil is quite as spectacular and charismatic. Public interest in her is running so high that the museum projects annual attendance may increase up to 20 percent because of Sue.
Williams, the man who had $7.6 million fall in his lap because of Sue, said he won't be one of the visitors.
"I sure wouldn't go to Chicago to see that fossil," he said. "I've seen it already. I don't need to see it again."
Reprinted with permission of the Chicago Tribune