Missing T. rex fossil returned to UC Berkeley by FBI agents following overseas search

By Gretchen Kell, Public Affairs

BERKELEY-- Following a lengthy, international search, the Federal Bureau of Investigation today (Friday, July 2) returned to the University of California, Berkeley, a priceless Tyrannosaurus rex jawbone missing since late 1994 from the UC Museum of Paleontology. (photo online)

"It's a great story, and we're thrilled to have it back," said Mark Goodwin, the paleontology museum's principal museum scientist. "This specimen is very distinct, in part because it is well-preserved. And there are not a lot of T. rex specimens around."

At a joint press conference held by UC Berkeley and the FBI, federal agents presented Goodwin and museum director David Lindberg with the long- lost fossil, which is some 68 million years old. The bone, along with the other skull bones from the same dinosaur, was unearthed by campus paleontologists in 1986 from the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in Montana.

The museum has a permit from the federal government to work in that area, where it has done research for more than two decades.

The bone is back, but FBI Special Agent in Charge Bruce Gebhardt, head of the San Francisco FBI office, said "the investigation is still ongoing, and there is little we can say about who may be responsible for this theft, other than to say that this investigation took us to Europe where the jawbone was located."

The FBI became involved in the case "because of the significance of this particular artifact," said Gebhardt, and involved the theft of federal property - in this case, a vertebrate fossil collected from federal land.

"We are merely caretakers of federal property," said Goodwin, a vertebrate paleontologist. "When federal property is stolen, it's a violation."

Goodwin added that the UC Berkeley incident illustrates how the high prices that dinosaur bones command on the commercial market - a T. rex skeleton fetched $8 million in 1997 at Sotheby's auction house in New York - lead to crimes such as this and jeopardize the use of fossils for scientific research.

"I was afraid this bone would be lost to science - and to the American people - forever," he said.

At the museum, which has the world's largest collection of fossils affiliated with a teaching university and one of the nation's largest and most important fossil collections, Goodwin said he first noticed the bone was gone in late 1994.

"I had just made a mold of some of the teeth and then made a cast," he said. "About a month after I returned the jaw to the collection, I pulled the drawer open, and it was gone."

The jaw's rear portion, kept in another drawer, was not taken. On Friday at the press conference, the two pieces were reunited - fitted together into a nearly yard-long piece - by representatives of the museum and the FBI.

At the time of the jaw's disappearance, the museum was housed in the campus's Earth Sciences Building, now known as McCone Hall. In the spring of 1995, the museum moved into renovated space, complete with state-of-the-art storage and security, in the Valley Life Sciences Building.

Since many professors, staff members and graduate students use the museum's fossils for research and teaching, Goodwin said he decided not to "press the panic button right away."

"We have so many users of the fossils," he said, "including classes and labs that check out materials and then bring them back. I thought that maybe the jaw had been borrowed for a class and hadn't yet been returned, or that maybe someone didn't fill out a loan card."

But he also knew that, if it had been stolen, putting out a public notice and posting the bone's photograph on the Internet immediately would send the thief underground. "Like stolen art," he said, "the fossil would have disappeared, for however long, until things cooled off."

In 1997, one of Goodwin's colleagues visited a private museum in Wyoming and saw a replica of a T. rex's lower jaw. "He told me it looked like the one that was stolen or had been missing," said Goodwin. "Another colleague went there and took a picture. It was a dead ringer.

"This confirmed for me that the original was still out there someplace. Someone had the original, was making replicas for sale."

A copy of the missing jaw also showed up in a commercial catalog of fossil replicas. When Goodwin called the vendor to say he was interested in buying a replica, he was told it would take some time, since the replicas are made available by a fossil dealer in Europe.

"I asked who the dealer was," said Goodwin, "and then I called the FBI."

Goodwin also provided the FBI with photographs of the missing fossil and an artist's scientific rendering of it.

"Of course the FBI wanted further proof that it was ours," he said. "In the museum, I found a fragment from the hind portion of the jaw that had not been taken."

Goodwin also helped the FBI understand the commercial market for fossils - who the players are, how to peruse the catalogs, about the major fossil and mineral show in Tucson every February.

"While the FBI has significant resources that can be brought to bear in an investigation, " said special agent Gebhardt, "our work is based on cooperation with individuals like this."

Goodwin was given updates on the FBI's work over the course of many months. Then, this past spring, he received the phone call he'd been waiting for.

"They said they had the jaw in Europe and would like to send it back to Berkeley. They needed a shipping box, because they were concerned about handling it properly," said Goodwin. "I put together a shipping container and gave it to the FBI and it was forwarded overseas. From there it went to the FBI in Washington, D.C., then to the FBI in California."

Goodwin, a member of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, an international group of vertebrate paleontologists concerned with protecting and conserving vertebrate fossils for scientific and educational use, said there is growing pressure on the part of commercial fossil dealers to "make it legal for them to collect and sell vertebrate fossils from federal lands."

"As a scientist and educator, I'm against that," he said. "Fossils on private lands belong to the landowner. But I do draw a line in the sand with public lands. It would be a disaster for the public and for science to open up public lands to the commercial collecting of fossils. The information lost would be tremendous."

The discussion has reached Washington, D.C., where the Department of the Interior recently held a one-day public meeting to receive input on federal policies on paleontology.

Goodwin said he and other paleontologists advocate additional protection for vertebrate fossils on public land. Scientifically significant fossils such as dinosaur bones need to remain in federal repositories that "care for, clean, conserve and make the fossils available for study, collect data on them, and manage them in perpetuity for the American people."

"As a public institution, UC Berkeley makes these fossils available to everyone for viewing, both in person and on the museum's award-winning web site," he added.

At the UC Museum of Paleontology, which is also a federal repository, "we're always reevaluating fossils," said Goodwin, "looking at them in a new light. New discoveries are not made just in the field, but in museum collections. Scholars from all over the world come here to study the fossils in the museum's collections.

"But like at a library, after someone reads a book, it's returned so someone else can borrow it," he said. "The person doesn't sell it."


NOTE: An electronic image (jpeg) of the T. rex jawbone is available online. Click here to download, or e-mail Jean Smith at UC Berkeley's Public Affairs Office at to receive a copy.

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