The digger, the thief and the dinosaur

Unravelling one of palaeontology's more outrageous swindles would take more than two years. But when Nate Murphy, the Indiana Jones of American dinosaur-hunters, wheeled a lump of rock before a sophisticated X-ray machine in October 2006, it triggered the collapse of the myriad fabrications of his life.

Murphy, 51, has been dragged through the Montana courts this year, pleading guilty to the theft of rare fossils - one of which was valued at more than $500,000.. In a few weeks, he goes before the District Court in Phillips County for the first of two hearings at which he will be sentenced, most likely to be heavily fined rather than jailed. But the judgment of his disillusioned friends and bewildered peers is in already: "great shame"; "too smooth"; "persona non-grata;" "lived a double-life"; "disgraced himself"; "a deliberate, wilful disregard for the ethics of palaeontology".

However, the most aggrieved of his colleagues was almost 16,000 kilometres away - in Perth.

On a July morning in 2002, euphoria erupted on a windswept hillside 40 kilometres north-west of the Montana town of Malta, as the momentousness of a find by Mark Thompson sank in among the more knowledgeable in a party of amateur fossil-hunters.

Searching ground on which others had given up, the keen-eyed mining geologist from Perth was quick to appreciate that white specks he discerned in the dirt were, in fact, proof of a rare and valuable scientific find.

More in Smh.com.au

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