“Anybody who had any idea what a fossil versus a rock looked like would have seen it.”
— Sue Hendrickson
“They’re dinosaurs. ‘Wow’ enough.”
— Chris Pratt
When “Jurassic Park” opened in the summer of 1993, I had just graduated from high school and was getting ready to leave western New York and head off to the great uncharted lands of Ohio for college. My friends and I were so astounded by the special effects in the film that we went and saw Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece four times.
Twenty-two years later, my son and I sat in the Strand Theater (love those new seats!) on Sunday night, watching “Jurassic World” and loving the CGI dinosaurs (while happily ignoring the plot holes). We weren’t the only ones enjoying the climactic multi-species battle; the film had the largest opening in the history of film and seems destined to bring in well over a billion dollars at the worldwide box office.
I was reminded, after the film, of the fact that the world’s most famous real T-Rex has a story that involves intrigue, criminal charges, a federal raid and a massive payout of its own, all of which led its skeleton to end up on display at the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois.
Its story begins on an August morning in South Dakota, with a team of archaeologists trying to figure out how to fix a flat tire on a 1975 Chevy Suburban. The group, led by Peter Larson of the Black Hills Institute, included an archaeologist named Sue Hendrickson. Fortunately for dinosaur lovers, Hendrickson was both impatient and navigationally challenged. Tired of waiting for the flat tire fix, she decided to take a walk in the hills.
It was foggy that morning and Hendrickson got lost. While trying to find her way back to rest of the group, she stumbled across a hillside where a number of smaller bones were scattered across the path in front of her. Looking up the hillside, she saw several vertebrae sticking out of the side of the hill. She made her way back to camp and the rest of the team rushed back to the location with her. What they would eventually find hidden in that hill remains the most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton ever found.
Two years later, the T-Rex had come to be known as “Sue” in honor of Hendrickson but, before the skeleton could be fully processed, its legal saga began. On an early May morning in 1992, the FBI and the South Dakota National Guard raided the institute and took Sue’s bones with them. There began a multi-year battle over who was entitled to Sue’s skeleton.
Larson’s group had permission from the land owner, a member of the Sioux tribe, to dig. Following the discovery of Sue, the owner claimed that the permission to dig did not extend to permission to remove the bones or a claim to ownership. Further, the land turned out to be part of a Native American trust, leading others to claim that the remains belonged to the tribe. Sue was transferred to the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and there she remained while the legal system ran its course.
It would take three more years for ownership of Sue to be decided in federal court. By the time a judge ruled in 1995 that Sue was the rightful property of the landowner whose hillside she was pulled from, Peter Larson had been indicted on 153 charges, ranging from theft to money laundering, although none of them related to Sue. Larson got 18 months in prison and Sue headed to the auction block.
The Field Museum rallied public and private supporters to raise money when Sue’s skeleton was auctioned off by Sotheby’s. The museum paid more than $7.5 million in 1997 and the bones went on display in 2000. She remains there today.
Sue Hendrickson didn’t see a dime from her discovery of the T-Rex that bears her name. She did, however, go on to a very successful career in marine archaeology, published an autobiography and received an honorary Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Ironically, the 65-year-old now lives in Honduras, just a few hundred miles from the fictional Costa Rican island where the story of a computer-generated Rex earned half a billion dollars last weekend.