Treasure Of The Badlands

ON A BLAZING DAY THIS summer in the badlands of Montana, a group of fossil hunters found a few bones on what they thought was private land. ""There weren't enough to fill a third of a sandwich bag,'' recalls paleontologist Keith Rigby, who was heading the dig. But soon they had more. Lots more. When the team found a toe bone the size of a cantaloupe, they suspected they'd uncovered the remains of a T. rex, the biggest and baddest of the meat eaters--or, even better, a new, gargantuan species of dinosaur.

The find had more than scientific value. A decent dinosaur skeleton can be worth millions of dollars. But Rigby did not have the time to finish the dig. A professor at Notre Dame, he had to return to South Bend, Ind., for classes. And his volunteer helpers from Earthwatch were due back at their day jobs, too. So in mid-August they covered over the dig site. Rigby chose not to announce his find: he wanted to finish the job first, and he didn't want to attract poachers to the hilltop graveyard south of Glasgow. Before leaving, he asked the Waltons, the family that had given him permission to dig on what they said was their land, to keep watch for vandals.

But Rigby left no one to watch the Waltons. They are a colorful local family, with a sad recent history. They had once owned the land where Rigby was digging. Deeply in debt in 1994, they'd lost it to the federal government. They still lived there, as tenants facing eviction. On Sept. 13 two of the Walton clan, cousins Fred and Steve, led a group to the site and began digging for the million-dollar bones.

That evening, news of their project reached Jim Rector, a local lawyer and friend of Rigby's, when he stopped for a drink at the Gateway Inn at the Fort Peck Dam (BEST DAM BAR BY A DAM SITE). There he ran into a friend who bragged about having seen a T. rex that morning. Knowing that few people besides the researchers and the Waltons knew about the find, Rector phoned Rigby. After that, says Fred Walton, ""all hell broke loose.'' The next day police arrived to shut down the site, and the entire incident was put under FBI investigation. Removing bones or other artifacts from federal property can be a felony.

For his part, Fred Walton claims he and his cousin were simply curious and law-abiding landowners. ""Rigby abandoned the dig site,'' Walton says. ""We just went up there to see if the bones were valuable.'' The Waltons still own a piece of adjoining land, and Fred claims he thought the bones may have been on his property.

Neither the FBI nor Fred Walton will say whether any bones were taken from the site. For much of the summer, maintains Rigby, Fred Walton had hinted that he had a buyer for the T. rex. Rigby says Fred was anxious to get the fossil out of the ground as fast as possible. At first, Fred told Rigby that he could market it for $1.6 million. Rigby told him he planned to give the bones to a proposed local museum. The day after authorities closed down the site, says Rigby, Fred left a message that the price had reached $1.8 million. Whether or not Fred had a buyer is still unclear: ""I have to say "no comment'.''

To help them dig, Fred and Steve had hired Nate Murphy, director of paleontology at the Phillips County Historical Museum in nearby Malta. ""We covered our butt,'' Walton says. ""We went out there with a paleontologist.'' Murphy says he reluctantly agreed to go only after the Waltons told him that they were going to dig--with or without his help. Murphy, who knew Rigby, failed to reach him. When he asked where the paleontologist was, Murphy says, the Waltons assured him that he had gone to Mongolia. ""My goal was to placate them,'' Mur- phy says. ""I wanted to pre- vent damage.''

It's easy to see how someone could hope that dinosaur bones could do for impoverished McCone County what oil did for Saudia Arabia. Over the past two decades, fossils have become big business. Japanese and German buyers have purchased big-ticket specimens. This week the remains of ""Sue,'' a T. rex discovered in South Dakota in 1990, will go on display at Sotheby's in New York City, where they'll be auctioned on Oct. 4. Sue became a celebrity skeleton in 1992, when she became the center of a bitter ownership battle that ultimately landed one man in prison. Sotheby's thinks the bones could bring more than a million dollars. Fossil experts say they could bring far more. ""If you've got corporate people bidding for it, it could go wild,'' says Michael Triebold, owner of Triebold Paleontology, a commercial fossil dealer.

The fate of the Glasgow T. rex is less certain. Rigby wants to go back and start digging but has yet to obtain a permit. Meanwhile, the FBI continues to probe what crimes the Waltons or others may have committed. Dinosaurs were always big, but in this age of Spielberg, they are big business, too.