SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — The remains of a juvenile Tyrannosaurus
rex unearthed from northwest South Dakota in 1998 eventually could be headed back to the state. A federal judge has ruled that a lease between Harding County and the team of fossil hunters that dug up the fossil, nicknamed Tinker, was invalid because it did not follow South Dakota law.
Ken Barker, a Belle Fourche attorney representing Harding County, said the effect of the order is that the county owns Tinker and any other dinosaurs found on its site. "Our motion said we owned it. Their motion said they owned it," Barker said. "The judge said there was never a lease, so we, Harding County, own it."
But the homecoming for Tinker, 65 million years old and believed to be about 90 percent complete, is not certain. The T. rex is sitting in storage in Pennsylvania under the jurisdiction of a federal bankruptcy court after the man hired to restore the fossils filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection.
Barker said he's filing paperwork to have the court relinquish Tinker to the county. He and Harding County State's Attorney Robert Haivala have traveled to Pennsylvania to photograph and videotape the fossil, but they have not seen the T. rex since it landed in bankruptcy court. "That's one of the things we're going to ask them to verify, that they're being appropriately stored in the interim," Barker said.Copyright © of Todd Marshall
Harding County filed a federal lawsuit in August 2004 against dinosaur hunter Ron Frithiof of Austin, Texas, and several other parties. The suit alleged the team wrongfully and illegally removed the skeletal remains from county property and accused the parties of engaging in fraud, trespass and a civil conspiracy.
According to the lawsuit, the county found out about Tinker's discovery in May 2003 and sent notice to rescind the lease. The suit accused the defendants of "suggesting as facts, that which were not true," "suppressing facts which were true" and "other acts fitted to deceive." U.S. District Judge Richard Battey's order said "consideration of the remaining issues of fraud, mistake, rescission and conversion will not be made at this time."
Joe Ellingson, a Spearfish attorney representing Frithiof, could not be reached for comment. Ellingson said in 2004 that Frithiof and the team had excavated the T. rex from 3 1/2 acres of property leased from a private landowner. It wasn't until a potential buyer called for a land survey in May 2001 that it was realized the county owned part of the land.
Frithiof and the county signed the lease agreement in late 2000. But Battey ruled that lease didn't follow South Dakota law, which requires leases exceeding 120 days and $500 to go before a public hearing. Tinker, excavated north of Belle Fourche in the summer of 1998, was thought to be the first nearly complete skeleton of a juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex found.
Dinosaur experts determined the specimen was young based on its unfused backbones and gangly appearance, particularly in the shin and ankle. But the skeleton's large jaws and massive bone-crushing teeth suggested it ate an adult diet, even though it didn't appear strong enough to wrestle large prey to the ground. Scientists surmised that perhaps one of its parents hunted the meals, and Tinker showed up later to munch.