Peter LARSON & Terry WENTZ

Vol. 5, No. 4 (December 1993)

The following excerpts are from Karen Reedstrom's interview with Terry Wentz and Peter Larson of the Black Hills Institute for Geological Research,  published in the December 1992 issue of Full Context.

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Q: Let's start from the beginning. Tell us how your institute made one of the biggest dinosaur discoveries in history?

Larson: We've been collecting at the Ruth Mason Dinosaur Quarry since 1979. This is a quarry of duckbill dinosaurs in north-central South Dakota. Over the years we've looked around the area trying to locate other specimens. This particular day, August 12, 1990, Susan Hendrickson, one of our collectors, went on a long prospecting walk. She happened on some bones falling out of a cliff face. She had a suspicion of what she had found and brought a couple of fragments to the site where we were excavating a partial Triceratops skull. When she showed me these two fragments of dorsal vertebrae, I knew immediately, even though I'd never seen the inside of one of these bones before, that they were from a Tyrannosaurus rex. The bones of carnivorous dinosaurs have a very special, sponge-like, construction. Susan and I ran over to the site, and sure enough there was a skeleton coming out of the side of the hill. I just knew it was going to be all there, and that it was going to be wonderful.

Q: You were pretty thrilled?

Larson: Yes! It was certainly one of the most exciting days of my life.

Wentz: There are a couple of other points about the discovery I'd like to share. I think Susan Hendrickson knew what she had found when she discovered the dinosaur. In fact, she had joked all that summer about finding a T. rex. When Susan and her dog, Gypsy, hopped out of the truck on that misty morning she knew exactly where she was going . (The rest of us went into town to have a tire fixed. I was happy for the break, but Susan didn't want to waste valuable field time waiting in town.) She had spotted a cliff face one evening on the way back to camp that she realized hadn't been explored yet. That morning she hiked three miles to get to it. In that cliff face she found the bones of the best Tyrannosaurus rex ever found. What she saw was a string of vertebrae going into the hill and chunks of larger bones tumbling out. The shape, texture, and the look of the bones were different than anything she had collected before. Those bones had been weathering out for upwards of one hundred years and were not noticed until Susan came to look for dinosaurs that day. This discovery is directly related to Susan's personality, especially her perseverance. Her habit of continuously looking for unexplored territory, working hard, and walking that extra mile paid off for all of us. If it wasn't for Susan Hendrickson, this wonderful dinosaur would still be lying in the ground, undiscovered.

Q: So what was the next step as far as getting the dinosaur?

Larson: The first step, of course, was to make sure as to the ownership of the land where the skeleton was found. I made a call back to the Institute, and I had our administrative assistant, Marion Zenker, check out who owned the land. Maurice Williams, who had invited us to look on his property, was indeed the owner of that particular quarter-section of land; in fact, he had a lease with an oil company on that same quarter-section.

Q: What was your understanding with Maurice Williams, the ranch owner, as to the removal of the fossil?

Larson: Well, he had originally invited us to look for fossils on his land, and I had mentioned to him that we would pay him if we found something worthwhile. He said that wasn't necessary. After we found this specimen I called him right away, and told him we had found something very exciting, and we would like to dig. He gave us permission to start excavating, and came over to watch us. We talked quite a bit about the fossil, and about our museum that we were building here in Hill City. Eventually, when we knew how much of the skeleton was there, we agreed on a price. We paid him five thousand dollars for the rights to the fossil and the right to excavate and remove the fossil for our museum.

Q: Do you have any of that on paper, as Judge Wapner always asks?

Larson: I wrote up two copies of a hand written contract. I showed it to him and he said there's no need to sign anything between friends and then accepted a check that said specifically on it that it was payment for this specimen. I'm the type of person who trusts everybody.

Q: Why do you call the fossil Sue?

Larson: She's called Sue after her discoverer, Susan Hendrickson. It turns out to be a rather fortuitous name, not only because "Sue" is the legal term that is being used for this dinosaur, but also because it turns out that Sue is probably a female dinosaur.


Q: This is the largest Tyrannosaurus rex ever found? So how large and how heavy was Sue?

Larson: Yes, Sue is the largest Tyrannosaurus rex that's ever been found. It's also the most complete and the best preserved. We found almost 90% of her skeleton. Sue probably weighed between six to eight tons. She stood thirteen foot tall at the hips and measured approximately forty-one feet in length. Standing upright, the top of her head could have been twenty feet in the air. She's a very, very large animal.

Q: Terry, tell us about your part in removal of the fossil, and how long did it take to unearth it?

Wentz: I was with Pete, Susan, and also Pete's brother, Neal, on the excavation. A couple of other people also helped out here and there. There were four of us at any given time digging on the fossil. It took us seventeen days to remove Sue from the ground.

Q: That's quick for something that big.

Wentz: Yes, it seems so, but we had been digging all summer long and all the people with the Institute are professionals. All of us dig fossils for a living. So you don't have the problems inherent when, for instance, a university group digs. Many times a university actually has to train people as they are digging.

Q: Briefly describe what is involved in preparing fossil bones for posterity.

Wentz: Fossils are always broken. That's just the nature of something that's been in the ground for so long. So the main focus, at first, is to stabilize the fossil so that it doesn't fall apart when you work with it. At the Institute we use super glues quite extensively in preserving bones. Super Glue is great for two reasons, it is very strong and it sets up quickly. The digging of fossils and their preparation is very labor intensive. So having super glue is a wonderful thing. It saves a great deal of time. Next we clean the fossil. At the Institute we use an air abrasive device (a miniature sand-blaster that uses powder rather than sand) to clean the dirt from the bone. Most labs don't go to the extent that we do to clean fossils. What's nice about a fossil cleaned this way is that you can see very fine details in the bones. Then, after we've finished cleaning and gluing the bone, we paint a coating over the fossil to preserve it from the air.

Q: How far did you get with the preparation of Sue?

Wentz: I had removed fifty bones from the main skull block of Sue. Originally, when we found her in the ground, her pelvic bones were lying on top of her nose. To remove those bones without doing damage to the skull was an intricate and delicate operation. We were still in the initial phase of preparation when Sue was seized.

Q: How many hours of work have gone into Sue so far?

Wentz: Specifically, on preparation in the lab, at least two thousand hours; that doesn't include excavation time or scientific work.

Q: What were your plans for Sue after she was prepared?

Larson: In March of 1992, we announced the incorporation of the Black Hills Museum of Natural History, a non-profit foundation. We donated Sue and a number of our other important fossils to the museum so that they would be displayed here in Hill City.

Q: If you were going to sell Sue, how much would Sue be worth on the "Bone Market"?

Larson: That's a pretty hard question to answer, in part because Sue was never meant to be sold so we'll never test what that market would be. In effect, Sue is priceless.

Q: Tell us about the events of May 14-16, 1992.

Larson: At 7:30 AM on Thursday, May 14, I was taking a shower in my home directly behind the Institute when I heard Lynn, one of our preparators, call out, "Pete, you'd better get out here. The place is crawling with FBI agents". I quickly dressed and went outside. There I saw agents wearing blue jackets with the large yellow letters "FBI" printed on the back. The agents were busy surrounding our complex with yellow crime scene ribbon with the warning, "SHERRIFF'S LINE DO NOT CROSS", printed on it in bold black letters. All told there were approximately 35 law enforcement officers present. I was served with a search and seizure warrant demanding Sue the Tyrannosaurus rex, a number of other fossils, and virtually all of our records. They searched everywhere in our 20,000 foot facility. They were in our files in the office, in our large fossil storage areas, in our out-buildings, the place was crawling with government strangers. We felt violated. While Sue's bones were being hastily packed for transport the agents were carefully going through our files and took everything related to Sue; photographs, slides, scientific papers, video tapes, diaries, maps, and memoranda. They even took letters I had written to school children. It took over two weeks to dig Sue, thousands of hours were invested in her preparation. We had spent hours and hours considering every aspect of Sue's preparation, carefully planning every move, thinking about each and every phase of her care. They packed, loaded, and moved the finest dinosaur ever found, in three days. It was a heart-rending experience for me. All of our families were in tears as they drove away with Sue. Even a couple of the Guard members were crying. While putting up with the strain of a three day seizure operation was a terrible experience, it was unbearable for our good friend, Leon Kinsbergen, who was visiting us from Canada at the time. Leon is a Jewish immigrant who is now in his seventies. He had lived in Holland during World War II and he saw, first hand, the horrors of that war. He had watched as his father's business, which employed 1500 people, was confiscated by the Nazis. He lost his wife and children to the concentration camps. He fought in the resistance and was captured, tortured and was also sent to a concentration camp. Fortunately Leon survived. He was so terribly upset during the seizure. I tried to comfort him by explaining to him, "Don't worry Leon, this is America." Leon replied, "That is what makes it so terrible. I can't believe this is happening in America." I told him, "The agents are friendly and they are only doing their jobs." Leon said, "They were friendly in Germany too..." I feel terrible that Leon had to relive those horrible memories. It was at that moment that I began to understand that our country, and our way of life, were in grave danger.

Q: Why did they seize the dinosaur?

Larson: Apparently, there were a number of accusations made against us by a few people who were jealous of what we found and there were rumors floating around that we were going to sell her for first 5 million dollars, then 10 million, then 15 million. The figure got all the way up to 66 million dollars, which I believe is ridiculous. The acting U.S. Attorney Kevin Schieffer was led astray by a few people who apparently want Sue for themselves.

Q: So, was it government sponsored paleontologists who were jealous, or Indians on the reservations?

Larson: Well, I think there were a few people who, perhaps, viewed what we were doing as competition with academia. But it's very, very strange; and it's very hard to understand the government's rationale. Here we had one arm of the government, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which was helping us with our research on Sue's skull (NASA agreed to CAT scan Sue's skull). This would have revealed intricate details of the inside of Sue's skull. We could have learned, perhaps, whether they were really endothermic, hot- blooded, as I believe they are. In fact NASA had been in touch with the acting U.S. Attorney Kevin Schieffer because we knew that we were being investigated by the FBI. The acting U.S. Attorney had said: "Oh no, we're not going to seize, you go ahead with the tests - no problems!"

Q: Terry, on the day of the seizure did you have any warning?

Wentz: There were some mumblings about the FBI investigation, but after NASA talked to the U.S. Attorney we weren't really concerned about an actual seizure. It's a pretty drastic step to actually take ten tons of dinosaur bones. We didn't have any warning.

Q: When you say "they" can you describe who they were?

Wentz: There were agents from the FBI, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, South Dakota School of Mines, the National Park Service, the Forest Service, as well as Sheriff's deputies, state police, and National Guard personnel. There were around thirty-five people in all and most of them were armed.

Q: It sounds like an army.

Wentz: It was. On the second day the FBI took off their 'seizure' jackets because they didn't want to be identified by the protesting public.

Q: You had protestors out there?

Wentz: Within three hours of their arrival, school children started leaving classes and protesting in front of the Institute. Toward the end of the first day we had at least 30 people protesting, the second day up to 50 and the third day there were up to 150 - 200 people protesting.

Q: So the town really loves Sue.

Wentz: Yes. Many of the people in town had seen her. Anyone who came in our front door and asked to see Sue were taken into the back and shown her. How many museums would allow you to go in their back rooms to see their prize possession during preparation?

Q: So you wouldn't keep other paleontologists from looking at Sue. You're not "selfish".

Wentz: We invited them. We had thirty scientists from around the world working on a major new monograph describing Tyrannosaurus rex. and the NASA CAT scan was in the works. In the world of paleontology it's very unusual to have that many scientists working on one project.

Q: As a professional fossil preparator, how would you rate the National Guard's handling of Sue?

Wentz: National Guard troops handle ammunition, heavy equipment and such. These people didn't have any understanding of what they were handling. Although they tried to be careful, they are not trained to handle delicate fossils. The problem with moving dinosaur bones is that they are very heavy and very delicate - a tricky combination. I have no doubt Sue was damaged during the raid.

Q: Did you try and help them?

Wentz: We did as much as we could. But the FBI insisted that everything had to be catalogued, packed, loaded, transported and unloaded - in three days.

Q: What was the hurry? Were they afraid she was going to get up and walk away?

Wentz: I think it was an economic decision; they didn't want to spend any more money than absolutely necessary on the seizure.

Q: Why did they seize her?

Wentz: That's a good question! The Federal Government is claiming the fossil as government property even though it was collected on private land. We are fighting them in court now. Whatever the government's concerns, they certainly didn't need to confiscate the fossil. It was being cared for at the institute. Now, no one is caring for Sue.


Q: What have you personally learned from all of this?

Wentz: The abuse of government power is really frightening. I've read about government seizures, but let me tell you, when they come into your business and take away your prize piece of work, you get a whole different view of what government is all about.

Q: Now you know how Hank Rearden felt when they took Rearden Metal away from him.

Wentz: We sure do! This is a frightening and frustrating experience. I guess you realize how tenuous everything really is when the government starts seizing power. You know, another thing I realized, is what an incredible intellectual, political and moral achievement the Bill of Rights is. During times of crisis we Americans look to the Constitution for guidance and it seems as though the Founding Fathers were speaking directly to us and to our problems with Sue: The seizure of property without due process; the protection against unreasonable search and seizure; the taking of rights left to the people; the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty; the right to a trial by a jury of our peers; were all addressed in that document.

Q: Just taking this huge dinosaur for a misdemeanor instead of a 50 dollar or a 500 dollar fine shows the government has no sense of a balance sheet.

Wentz: Yes, this seizure is definitely "cruel and unusual punishment".

Q: Peter, both you and your brother, Neal, dreamed, as kids, to have your own rock and fossil museum. The discovery of Sue was to be the central attraction of your proposed museum. Now this wonderful find, what should have been a source of joy to you, has become a nightmare of legal battles and hostile pressure groups. After all this, and what evermore to come, do you find yourself wishing that your friend Susan Hendrickson never took that walk and found those three pieces of vertebrae? Or is the pride of such a discovery enough to carry you through, even if the government takes Sue away, can you still shout to the big Dakota sky, "Our diligence found her, our brains identified her, and our sweat brought her out!"

Larson: One of the things I've learned in life is that you can never go back and do something over. I have absolutely no regrets about Susan finding Sue. The wonder of the discovery, and the joy that we experienced at the time we were digging her, I would not trade for anything. Every time I looked at Sue, I would recapture that joy. We're paying a big price for that wonderful experience, and I have to believe that Sue is going to be returned. If by some horrible turn of fate, Sue is not returned to us, I still have those memories and I will never look upon those with regret.

Peter Larson is President of Black Hills Institute of Geological Research located in Hill City, South Dakota. Pete, his brother Neal, and Robert Farrar are co-owners of the business which was started in 1974. The Institute's primary activity is supplying professionally prepared fossil specimens for research, teaching and display. They also provide technical assistance and consultation to museum and university personnel on preparation techniques, specimen identification and display design. Through their publication and distribution of educational materials, they provide current, scientific information to the general public about the field of paleontology. Terry Wentz is a fossil preparator for the Institute and was chief preparator of "Sue" the Tyrannosaurus rex



These excerpts represent a little over 1/3 of the interview with Wentz and Larson. To read the full text, you may order a copy of the December 1992 issue of Full Context here.

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