A husband-and-wife team of fossil preparators has been charged with the theft of a rare dinosaur skeleton. On 4 September, the U.S. Attorney's office in Salt Lake City, Utah, and the Utah Attorney General filed charges that Barry James and April Rhodes-James of Sunbury, Pennsylvania, in 1992 bought and sold an Allosaurus that was illegally collected from federal land. The couple denies any wrongdoing.
Allosaurus was a 10- to 14-meter-long predator from the late Jurassic. Only about a dozen relatively complete skeletons are known. The 150-million-year-old skeleton at the center of the investigation has about 85% of its bones, says Laurie Bryant, a paleontologist with the Bureau of Land Management in Salt Lake City.
Rhodes-James and James run a company called Prehistoric Journeys and have reconstructed more than 100 skeletons of dinosaurs and other extinct creatures, some of which have been placed in major museums. According to the charges, James traveled to Utah in 1991 to meet three men who had found the Allosaurus on federal land southeast of Fremont Junction, Utah, and had offered to sell it to him. James allegedly paid the men about $90,500 to dig up the fossil. If caught, James allegedly told one of them, they would only risk "a slap on the wrist."
James may face more than that. While the statute of limitations has expired for the Utah men who yanked out the bones, James--a resident of Pennsylvania--could be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison if convicted of state charges of theft by receiving stolen property and violating the cultural antiquities act. The U.S. Attorney's office is seeking $2.1 million in damages from both James and his wife for the theft and for allegedly selling it for $400,000 to a Japanese buyer. "We don't anticipate getting [the skeleton] back," says Melodie Rydalch, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney's office.
James denies the charges. He maintains he never bought the bones, only prepared them and found a buyer. The Allosaur bones, he says, came from many individuals, not a single skeleton, and the bones had been excavated from private land in the late 1800s. "We're totally innocent," says James, who has been summoned to appear in court in Utah next month.