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Couple charged in ’91 dino theft

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Scientists are still grieving over the theft a decade ago of a rare, 150 million-year-old allosaurus from public lands in Emery County. The loss, they say, is incalculable, and even criminal charges cannot undo the damage.

"The loss like this is tragic in the sense of what it means to research and education," said Scott Sampson, paleontologist with the Utah Museum of Natural History. "Not to mention it will never be exhibited."

Barry James, 50, a self-proclaimed paleontologist from Pennsylvania, was charged Tuesday in 7th District Court in Castle Dale with stealing a nearly complete fossilized allosaurus from public lands in 1991 and then selling the dinosaur to Japanese collectors for $400,000.

James and his wife, April Rhodes-James, have also been charged civilly in U.S. District Court for Utah where government prosecutors are seeking $2.1 million in damages.

"We have lost a treasured resource that cannot be replaced," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Warner.

There are only 12 complete allosaurus specimens in the world, and scientists know very little about the famed meat-eater that weighed up to five tons and had rows of razor-sharp teeth and claws used to rip the flesh of its prey.

"It would have been an excellent specimen. I can't think of any allosaurus in Utah as good as that one," said Laurie Bryant, regional paleontologist with the Bureau of Land Management.

State paleontologist James Kirkland agreed. "It's an extraordinary specimen. It may be the best preserved allosaurus skull ever found."

Allosaurs were theropods that lived during the end of the Jurassic Period and were smaller, distant cousins to the more famous Tyrannosaurus Rex, which lived during the Cretaceous Period about 66 million years ago, Sampson said.

Allosaurs are rare, but Jurassic formations in Utah have produced many famous specimens on exhibit around the world. One complete skeleton was recovered in Dinosaur National Park, and portions of others have been recovered from the Cleveland-Lloyd Quarry south of Price, "the most important site for allosaurs in the world," Sampson said.

The loss of this particular specimen deprives scientists of the chance to compare important details.

"Just because you look at one skeleton does not mean you understand what it looked like," Sampson said. "Sometimes information is not recorded on one that is recorded on another, and it can tell you completely different things. It's all about understanding variation."

Warner said he "hopes the case will send a strong message to others who may be tempted to damage or destroy property that belongs to every citizen of the United States."

Kirkland said scientists across the nation are applauding the prosecution.

But scientists bemoan the fact that federal law still does not treat seriously the illegal excavation of fossils. Congress will soon consider a bill to enhance the penalties for theft of fossils from public lands.

Sampson added that illegal removal of fossils is a growing problem, not just in the United States but in China, Argentina, Madagascar, Morocco and other countries.

"Dinosaurs have entered the realm of big business," he said. "What most people don't realize is that when they go into a private collection, it is a major loss for research and education."

At a press conference Tuesday, state and federal prosecutors said their case against James began with a tip from a confidential informant that led them to a Richfield man who was paid $90,500 to excavate the dinosaur.

The Richfield man, who has not been charged in the case, used a crew of Utahns to excavate the fossils over a nine-day period using picks, shovels and wheelbarrows, prosecutors said. A scientific excavation would have taken about six months, officials added.

According to court documents, the Richfield man told authorities that he questioned James when they visited the site in 1991 about whether it was legal to remove fossils from federal land and James insisted he was a paleontologist authorized to do so. He then "deputized" the Richfield man and his crew to conduct the excavations, court documents stated.

Additionally, James allegedly assured one accomplice that it was indeed illegal to remove the dinosaur but that it was worth the risk. If caught, they would receive only a "slap on the wrist," court documents stated.

The dinosaur was then moved to the Jameses' California business — listed in federal court documents as Prehistoric Journeys. Prosecutors say the skeleton was then sold to a Japanese buyer they refused to name.

The Jameses were unavailable for comment early Wednesday.

Barry James has been charged with one count of theft, a second-degree felony, and one count of violating the state's cultural sites antiquities law, a class A misdemeanor. If convicted, James could go to prison for up to 15 years. Federal charges accuse the Jameses of statutory theft, converting U.S. property to personal use and unjust enrichment.

A cooperative investigation led state and federal investigators to California and Pennsylvania and then to Japan where the dinosaur was found in a warehouse where it had been stored by the corporation that purchased it. Investigators say the allosaurus, which was damaged during excavation, is lost to science forever.

"We cannot replace the value lost," Warner said.

E-mail: donna@desnews.com