Dinosaur 13 is a love story, a conspiracy thriller, a tragedy, legal drama and a western all rolled into one. If you had pitched the plot of this American documentary to Hollywood as a blockbuster, they would have dismissed it as unbelievable: palaeontologist finds the largest Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil ever discovered; it becomes the pride and joy of the local community; the FBI ‘repossess’ it and prosecute the scientific team, as if they are criminals; their leader ends up in prison.
In 1990, Susan Hendrickson, a member of the Black Hill Institute of Geographical Research in South Dakota, discovered the bones of the T Rex that would be named in honour of her. ‘Sue’ was only the 13th T Rex specimen to have been collected – hence the film’s title. With 80% of bones present, the find was the most complete, and largest, of any of them.
The palaeontologist team paid landowner Maurice Williams, a Sioux Indian, $5,000 for the find, with the Intention of displaying the T Rex in their local museum. In the next two years thousands of visitors flocked to Hill City, SD, to see Sue. ‘We had everything going for us,’ said Peter Larson, the team’s leader. ‘Then all hell broke loose.’
30 FBI agents arrived, accusing the team of stealing the T Rex from Federal land. They took everything. Ridiculously, the National Guard was brought in to deal with townsfolk who had started to demonstrate – school kids and parents chanting ‘Save Sue! Don’t be cruel!’ Twenty years later, Larson still wells up with tears at the memory: ‘How dare they? How dare they do this?’
‘Peter was in love with that dinosaur’, says his wife. Sue was transported 30 miles to Rapid City and there follows a custody battle as if ‘she’ was still alive. The FBI had never issued a crime charge, so the Institute sued the Federal Government. Unfortunately for the palaeontologists, the T Rex could not have been discovered in a more complicated place – on Indian land, and subject to a patchwork quilt of laws and regulations.
The David vs. Goliath mismatch continued with the 1995 court case – the largest ever criminal case in South Dakota. The FBI called 90 witnesses and produced 600 items of evidence. The Black Hill Institute had only 9 witnesses. Accused of an avalanche of charges, the team were found not guilty of most charges.
However, the judge made an example of Peter Larson, who was sentenced to two years in Colorado federal prison (the Alcatraz of the Rockies). Reason for incarceration: ‘failure to fill out forms’. As one of team says, ‘this is America? This is justice?’
The T Rex’s final resting place was the Field Museum, Chicago – ‘the 2nd best place Sue could have gone to’ after the local museum. Its bones were auctioned by Sotheby’s for $7.6 million, most of which went to the Sioux landowner. Peter Larson wasn’t invited to the unveiling, but he went anyway, as the guest of Susan Hendrickson.
Dinosaur 13 uses a mixture of talking heads and archive film footage to tell its story. Emotive background music apart, this jaw-dropping documentary has no need for any tricks to keep you watching.
Make sure that you stay to watch the final credits to find out what happened to the film’s main characters. It will come as no surprise to learn that the person responsible for the FBI ‘bust’ was later busted himself. What a criminal catalogue of misery and heartbreak he set in motion.