Big Fight Over Big Dinosaur Bones

HOUSTON (CN) – Two dinosaur-bone hunters whose excavation of a rare juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton nearly 20 years ago in South Dakota set off a lengthy court battle are back in court, fighting over the sale of their partnership’s fossils.

For paleontologists, Harding County, South Dakota, in the state’s northwestern corner, is hallowed ground.

Known as the Tyrannosaurus rex capital of the world, it is home to part of the Hell Creek Formation, where Sue, the largest and most complete adult T-rex skeleton ever found, was discovered by her namesake, Sue Hendrickson, in 1990.

Sue’s 40-foot long, 12-foot-high skeleton is on permanent display at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.

Another bone hunter hit pay dirt in Harding County in 1997. Mark Eatman found a partial jawbone, ribs and teeth of what he believed was a dinosaur and he contacted expert Kim Hollrah.

Hollrah says in his federal lawsuit that he saw immediately that the jawbone belonged to a juvenile T-rex and he seized the chance to find the rest of its bones, negotiating with Eatman to buy the jawbone and lease rights for the area where Eatman found it for $50,000.

“Hollrah had been hunting and selling dinosaur bones most of his adult life. Although not affiliated with a university or museum, Mr. Hollrah is one of the foremost fossil hunters in the United States,” he says in the complaint.

Hollrah needed investors, so he partnered with Austin real estate developer and dinosaur enthusiast Ronald Frithiof, who put up $50,000 for a partnership they formed to excavate and sell bones found at the site, the lawsuit states.

Hollrah sued Frithiof on March 10, claiming Frithiof sold a duck-billed dinosaur’s tail bones and other dinosaur bones they found at the South Dakota site without his permission, for much less than they are worth.

Hollrah and Frithiof are all too familiar with court proceedings. Their discovery of the skeleton of a juvenile T-rex in Harding County in the late 1990s led the county to sue them in Federal Court in March 2004, claiming they illegally removed the skeleton from its property.

Experts say the skeleton, named Tinker after Frithiol’s childhood nickname, is 65 million years old. They believe it was a juvenile because its vertebrae are not fused.

The Eighth Circuit ended the dispute nearly five years later, ruling in August 2009 that Frithiof and Hollrah did not have to tell the county they found the bones at the site before they leased it from the county in November 2000.

That litigation scared off the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, which had been in talks with Frithiof to buy Tinker for $8.5 million. Then the skeleton got tied up by another court.

A Pennsylvania bankruptcy court ordered Tinker be put in storage, where it stayed for several years, after the trustee of a company Hollrah and Frithiof hired to prepare some of its bones for display sued the partners, claiming they owed $75,000 for its work, according to Hollrah’s lawsuit and The Associated Press.

Tinker’s bones were eventually sold to a German collector, who loaned them to the Etihad Modern Art Gallery in Abu Dhabi, which displayed them in 2014, according to The National, an English-language newspaper that covers the United Arab Emirates.

It reported in October 2014 that the gallery’s chairman was trying to sell Tinker for $10 million and hoped to find a buyer who would permanently exhibit it in Abu Dhabi.

A cast of Tinker’s bones has been shown in the United States.

Scott McKenzie, a geology professor and paleontology director at Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pennsylvania, told Courthouse News on Monday that a benefactor donated a cast of Tinker to the school and it’s been displayed twice in Erie by the university.

“This skeleton is over 32 feet in length. So this is about 50 to 75 percent full-grown. The dinosaur’s skull is almost 3 feet in length. Those teeth are like railroad spikes. This was the king of the Mesozoic era,” McKenzie, curator of the university’s Sincak Natural History Museum, said with Tinker behind him in a YouTube video posted in November 2014.

Not all of Tinker’s bones were found, so some replica bones were used to make the cast. The skeleton in Abu Dhabi also had artificial bones added to it, McKenzie said.

“This is fairly common, because a lot of these skeletons are not found complete, and you have to add, like the rest of a leg bone, or some extra tailbone, or something like that to complete the skeleton so when the public looks at it, it doesn’t look like a jumble of bones.”

Tinker does not feature prominently in the latest lawsuit, in which Hollrah claims Frithiof sold parts of another T-rex skeleton and a duck-bill dinosaur from the South Dakota dig without consulting him, then gave him a heavily redacted sales contract that doesn’t even say who bought them.

Hollrah says Frithiof also offered to buy out his rights to their partnership’s remaining fossils for much less than their market value.

He wants an accounting and punitive damages for fraud, breach of fiduciary duty, breach of contract, unjust enrichment and copyright infringement.

He is represented by Michael McCoy with Amatong McCoy in Houston.