Steve Fiffer
Tyrannosaurus Sue
W. H. Freeman and Company, 2001
ISBN 0-7167-4017-6 (hardcover), 0-7167-9462-4 (paper)
Peter Larson and Kristin Donnan
Rex Appeal
Invisible Cities Press
ISBN 1-931229-07-4 (hardcover)
Reviewed by Gary McGath
Copyright 2002 by Gary McGath

The story of "Sue," the Tyrannosaurus rex found by the Black Hills Institute in 1990, is a fascinating and frightening tale of science, business, and the abuse of governmental power. Tyrannosaurus Sue and Rex Appeal tell this story from two different standpoints.

Peter Larson was and is the head of the Black Hills Institute, and was personally involved in the matter from beginning to end. His account ... Tyrannosaurus Sue, though obviously sympathetic to Larson, seeks to tell the story objectively. Rex Appeal has two authors, Peter Larson and his ex-wife Kristin Donnan. The preface and notes indicate that Donnan wrote the book in its final form, although it's told in the first person from Larson's viewpoint. Naturally, it presents a more personal and often more colorful account than the other book. However, there are few disagreements on issues of fact.

"Sue" was the largest and most complete T. rex skeleton found up to her discovery in 1990; she was named after her discoverer, Sue Hendrickson. After people realized what a valuable find Sue was, a complex dispute developed over the ownership of the bones. The Black Hills Institute had obtained permission from Maurice Williams to dig where Sue was found. Williams' land was part of the Cheyenne River Sioux reservation, and the Sioux claimed that it was illegal to remove the fossil without the tribe's permission.

On May 14, 1992, the FBI raided the Black Hills Institute offices and impounded the fossil. Acting U.S. Attorney Kevin Schieffer arrived on the scene and stated, out of the blue, that the fossil was U.S. government property. This claim had never previously been asserted; the government simply walked in and nationalized Sue. The National Guard was called out as part of the seizure; the governor of South Dakota, who was not informed of their use till after the fact, called the Federal government's action "underhanded." The bones were deposited in an uncontrolled environment which could have damaged them through chemical breakdown.

The federal government never claimed that there were any criminal charges concerning Sue, who was the subject of a purely civil dispute; rather, it claimed that the fossil was to be held as "evidence," in some unspecified way, of other alleged crimes. At the 1995 trial of the Black Hills Institute, Judge Battey ruled that this "evidence" (which the government was still holding) could not even be mentioned in court.

Williams had placed his property in trust with the Department of the Interior as a tax-saving action, and therefore could not sell it without permission of the government. Schieffer's interpretation of the law was that all Indian trust land is government property and that Indians are simply tenants. (He did not, however, extend this argument to void the oil leases which Williams had issued on his land.)

Williams claimed that the government was correct in saying that the trust law voided his sale of Sue, but insisted that the dinosaur belonged to him, not the government. This gave him the best of both worlds, allowing him to regain title to a highly valuable specimen. The Sioux sued for Sue in turn, claiming forfeiture because Williams allegedly hadn't obtained a necessary license from the tribe. Williams' view prevailed in court; the government ruled that a dinosaur in the ground is real estate, and therefore Williams' trust agreement prevented him from selling her. Sue was finally auctioned to Chicago's Field Museum for $7.6 million, not counting the auctioneer's percentage, and is now on public display at the Field Museum.

The federal government prosecuted Larson and the Black Hills Institute on a large number of charges, none of which related directly to Sue. Larson was found guilty of "failure to fill out forms" -- he had not declared $15,000 which he had brought in from Peru on a required customs form.

The money was divided into two separate checks, each under $10,000; apparently this was partly for safety reasons, partly to avoid the reporting requirement. But dividing up money so that reporting is not required is called "structuring," and is a crime under US law. If the logic of "structuring" were applied elsewhere, then actions such as deferring income in order to reduce one's income tax would be crimes.

Larson was sentenced to two years and served eighteen months.

Both books provides many insights into this ugly story and some of its political causes. The role of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontologists (SVP) is particularly disturbing; that organization has sought to legally restrict fossil collecting to people affiliated with recognized museums and schools, and publicly endorsed the seizure of Sue. There appears to have been dissent within the SVP; the press release endorsing the seizure claimed to be authorized by its president, Dr. C. S. Churcher, but Dr. Churcher denied having seen it before its release. Some long-term SVP members resigned because of statements it made relating to the Black Hills Institute case.

The Federal prosecutors were, according to Fiffer, particularly high-handed with Sue Hendrickson; they threatened to prosecute her unless she would provide them with testimony against the Institute, and ordered her not to communicate with her friends. Hendrickson ended up so disgusted with the United States that she left the United States afterward. She said that the proceeding "shattered my faith in the United States government."

Fiffer puts a large amount of blame on Larson's attorney, Patrick Duffy, for making public statements which antagonized the opposition attorneys. Larson, in contrast, praises Duffy highly; one of the T. rex skeletons discovered by the Black Hills Institute was named "Duffy" after him. ("[W]hat do you name a creature you'd never want coming after you?") The books do disagree on some points, such as the circumstances of Neal Larson's altering the labels on some boxes of fossils.

But what makes the story exciting and ultimately hopeful is the perseverance of Peter Larson and his associates in spite of seizure, long legal proceedings, and prison. Indeed, Rex Appeal mentions that Larson continued his research, to the extent that he could, even while imprisoned, and he wrote parts of the book there. His work is a passion, and the eventual appearance of Sue in the Field Museum was a triumph for him, in spite of the personal loss. In spite of the efforts of what paleontologist Robert Bakker calls "small-minded PhDs and even smaller-minded government officials," Sue has provided a trove of scientific information. Nor has the outcome been entirely bad personally. An email which I received recently from the Black Hills Institute, declining my invitation to Larson to come to the 2004 World Science Fiction convention, noted that he has become very busy as a result of the publicity surrounding Sue.

In addition to the story of Sue, Rex Appeal provides a great deal of interesting information about the progress of the study of tyrannosaurs and a lively description of the K-T extinction, and is a good addition to any dinosaur enthusiast's collection.

The two books present complementary views of government power run wild. One presents the perspective of greater distance, the other a highly personal view. In today's world, our government is acquiring ever-broader powers in its "War on Terror." Reading one or both of these books can help us to keep in mind that our own government is quite capable of using its broad powers to terrorize people.


This review last revised on October 24, 2003

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