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‘Dinosaur 13’ broadcast on CNN unearths old drama over a T. rex named Sue

“Sue,” a 41-foot-long Tyrannosaurus rex, is on permanent display at the Field Museum in Chicago. (Sue Ogrocki/Reuters)

This week, CNN will air a documentary that endeavors to tell the story of “Sue,” the most magnificently compete Tyrannosaurus rex fossil ever unearthed — and the boatload of drama that seemed to follow her.

“Dinosaur 13” is, however, quite one-sided, as several observers have noted since the film was released earlier this year.

The story of Sue’s ownership and the legal travails of the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, which found and excavated the famous fossil, is notoriously complex. But critics say the film ignores that complexity in favor of a story that has all the feels and none of the pesky and difficult ethical questions that surround for-profit paleontology.

In response to that criticism, the network hosted one such detractor (who incidentally also appears in the film) and allowed him to to air his grievances on Monday.

“The entire story about this investigation is not captured within the film ‘Dinosaur 13,'” said Vincent L. Santucci, a senior geologist and paleontologist for the National Park Service who has for years investigated fossil theft. “There was a separate criminal investigation that had very little to do with Sue. The dinosaur overshadowed a lot of that discussion and has created confusion.”

The broad strokes of the story are this: In 1990, after Sue was first discovered in the South Dakota Badlands, her ancient bones were removed by paleontologists affiliated with Black Hills, a for-profit company that buys and sell fossils.

The trouble is, Sue was discovered by Black Hills employee Susan Hendrickson on a private ranch on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation — and the bones became the subject of a bitter civil dispute between the company, its private owner, and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe of South Dakota.

Black Hills had come to posses a momentous specimen — the fossil hunter’s holy grail — but it wasn’t until two years after Sue was found that the chips truly began to fall. Civil and criminal litigation dogged Black Hills and eventually resulted in the conviction of its president and co-owner Peter Larson and other felony and misdemeanor charges. Larson served 18 months in prison.

The film dramatizes these events to weave a compelling story that the New York Times described as a “scientific soap opera.”

But Santucci argued that the documentary neglects to delve into the very serious issue of artifact theft, which had embroiled Black Hills long before Sue arrived on the scene.

The National Park Service has documented more than 850 cases of fossil theft on federal park lands alone in the last 10 years, Santucci said.

And the criminal investigation that eventually landed Larson in prison and resulted in Sue being confiscated by a task force of FBI agents, National Guard members and other law enforcement officers actually dated back to 1985, five years before Sue emerged as the largest and most complete T. rex specimen ever unearthed.

“Fossils are non-renewable resources; they are the most important evidence we have about the evolution and history of life on this planet,” Santucci noted on CNN on Monday. “We’re not making any more T. rexes.”

He added: “In terms of our management of them, we have to pay particular attention to make sure that they are directed appropriately for scientific and educational purposes.”

Other critics have been more pointed about “Dinosaur 13’s” telling of the story.

Writing in Slate, Don Lessem, an author and excavator, eviscerated the film for painting a solely sympathetic portrait of Black Hills:

The files were seized as part of an investigation into widespread allegations of international fossil theft and misrepresentation against Larson. Laborious research resulted in convictions of Larson and others at Black Hills for customs fraud, money laundering, and other offenses. But, in Dinosaur 13’s curious reimagination of the legal process, several convictions and a two-year prison sentence for Larson — which was, admittedly, overly harsh — are somehow proof of Larson’s fundamental innocence.

In an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper that is part of a webcast associated with the documentary, Larson comes across as an earnest lover of science and history.

“Every time we uncovered a new bone or the start of a new bone, it was like Christmas for 17 days — the 17 days that we worked on the specimen,” Larson said. “It was the highlight of my life. There’s nothing to compare to that feeling of discovery. Every time you turned over a rock there was something new to discover.”

Santucci also joined Cooper for the web segment, but didn’t focus on his concerns about the film. He even sat silently as filmmaker Todd Miller called for Larson to be pardoned, saying: “We shouldn’t let … bad things happen to good people like that.”

But the story of Sue and Black Hills is also a story about the conflict between science and profit.

Seven years after the fossils were found, Sue was sold in a Sotheby’s auction for a more than $8.3 million — a sum that forever changed paleontology, as The Post noted:

Millions of years after an extinction event wiped out the dinosaurs, fossil collecting had changed in about eight minutes.
“We never thought of our stuff as being valued the way a Monet might be,” [Randall Kremer, the National Museum of Natural History’s public affairs director] said. “People were flabbergasted. It was a cataclysmic event in the scientific community.”
Among other things, the sale made it increasingly difficult for paleontologists to collect fossils on private land, with once-hospitable landowners looking to strike it rich by working with for-profit bone hunters. Federal lands were also jeopardized as the fossil market overheated. Two months after the auction, the North Carolina museum paid $3 million for an Acrocanthosaurus, an earlier predator.
“After Sue sold, it was truly frightening,” said Vincent L. Santucci, a National Park Service geologist who spent years investigating fossil poachers. “You heard people saying, ‘I’m going to give up my blue-collar job and move out West to find my million-dollar dinosaur.’ And it was worth the risk doing it on federal lands because of the economic rewards that might be gained.”

In an interview with The Post earlier this year, Santucci said that “there was a rapidly escalating public market even before Sue, with fossils that should have been going to research and public museums going into private hands.”

Sue’s $8.3 million sale to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, he said, just made the problem worse.

Earlier this year, Larson told The Post that losing Sue and going to prison wasn’t exactly ideal — and that he’d spent about $1 million on legal fees. “But,” he said, “I got about $20 million worth of advertising; the business has been doing very well ever since. Fame is fleeting, but infamy lasts forever.”

The cable giant was willing to devote a few minutes — literally, about four minutes so far — to a rebuttal.

But Santucci and many of the film’s critics argue that in order for viewers to “unearth the truth,” as the film claims it will, they’ll have to dig a little deeper.

RELATED: The T. rex that got away: Smithsonian’s quest for Sue ends with different dinosaur