The Oldest and Largest T-Rex Ever Discovered Is Also Kind Of Cursed

Sue the T-Rex lived one hell of a crazy life, but it was only a prelude to the legal battle she sparked in her afterlife.

Aug 12 2014, 2:41pm

Sue the T-Rex at the Field Museum. Image: Connie Ma

Twenty-four years ago today, a volunteer paleontologist named Sue Hendrickson discovered the largest, most well-preserved Tyrannosaur rex ever unearthed. The find itself was a total fluke—Hendrickson's colleagues blew a tire on a nearby highway, only to discover that their spare tire was also flat.

While the team hightailed it to the nearest mechanic, Hendrickson explored a nearby bluff. And there she was: a 67-million-year-old lump of awesome protruding from the cliffside. The group of fossil hunters, led by brothers Peter and Neal Larson, named the magnificent carnivore after Hendrickson, and began the meticulous work of releasing the tyrannosaur from her long dormancy. And that's how Sue the T-Rex kicked off her insane journey to fame, fortune, and controversy most foul.

Director Todd Douglas Miller tells the tale in its entirety in the new documentary Dinosaur 13, and goddamn if it isn't one of the juiciest stories in paleontological history (and if you're familiar with the Bone Wars, you know that's not light praise). It's as if Sue's own tumultuous life in the late Cretaceous was some premonition of her rebirth as the focal point of one of the strangest legal battles ever to take the floor.

Dinosaur 13 trailer. YouTube.

Sue lived to be 28, making her the oldest T-Rex ever found, but those years were hard-earned. First, she survived a horrendous blow to her right shoulder which tore apart her tendons and broke three ribs. Then, her face became infected by parasites, her vertebrae buckled under her huge frame, and she developed gout

The back of her head caved in, a wound that Peter Larson believes was a death blow delivered by another Rex, but could have been caused by post-mortem trampling too. Whatever the cause, one thing is clear: Sue was one seriously badass trooper.

But the lady Rex's afterlife would prove to be no less pyrotechnic. In 1990, Peter Larson bought the specimen from landowner Maurice Williams for $5,000—the biggest sum ever exchanged for a dinosaur at the time (though Sue would break her own record within the decade). Larson's small startup museum Black Hills Institute (BHI) in Hill City, South Dakota began preparing her to be the star of their tiny town.

But in May 1992, two years into the prep work, Sue was seized in a government raid worthy of an X-Files season finale. The FBI and the National Guard descended upon the town with such an excessive show of force that Larson joked that only a real, marauding T-Rex could have warranted it.

Formal charges didn't arrive for months afterwards, but the government ended up alleging that the BHI team had removed Sue from federal land, rendering his agreement with Williams void. Complicating the matter further was a claim from the Bureau of Indian Affairs claiming that Sue was found on reservation land, further moot-ing the already moot deal.

So basically, the whole situation devolved into a four-way tug-of-war between the Larsons, Maurice Williams, the federal government, and the reservation. The battle went on for years, all while Sue was locked up in a shipping container collecting dust.

I won't ruin the rest of the story, except to say that this movie is a genuine thriller, and it's difficult not to fall in love with Larson's quest to regain his Rex (indeed, Kristin Donnan, the journalist who covered the story, actually did fall in love with her subject, and married Larson during the legal battle). 

Fortunately, Larson seems just as endearing two decades later, despite the fact that the federal government basically took a huge, decade-long dump on all of his hopes and dreams. He attended the screening I saw last week, and was far cheerier than you'd expect of a person who had had endured such an epic helping of bad luck.

"During the time that this was going on, I noticed that there were some really awesome things happening," he said of the court case, which dragged on through the better part of the 1990s. "These kids doing bake sales, saying, 'here's 90 dollars to help with the preparation of Sue,' and then after Sue was taken, to help with our defense."

"Several museums purposely bought things before they needed to, to help us out," he continued. "Our lawyers stuck by us even though we were basically broke. If I had concentrated on all the bad things, I'd have missed that."

"And thinking about this wonderful dinosaur that I'm still a part of," he added, smiling. "The Field Museum, by the way, has granted me visitation rights."

The crowd cheered at that, because nothing is more satisfying than a reunion at the end of a love story.

Along those lines, though, it's worth mentioning that Dinosaur 13 repeatedly uses Larson's easy charisma as a narrative sledgehammer. Throughout the documentary, Larson and his team are cast as classic underdogs fighting a war against a faceless, immoral Goliath of the government. Landowner Maurice Williams is utterly eviscerated by the documentary, and no talking heads are offered to give him even the meekest defense of his conduct (Williams himself died in 2011). It's difficult to know whether the landowner earned the hatchet job portrayal, but for the record, he did do everything he can to look like JR Ewing from Dallas. Just sayin'.

The repercussions of the lawsuit are equally disconcerting. As Larson explained at the screening, his legal battle inspired new laws that make legal excavation of fossils incredibly difficult, even for veteran paleontological institutes. As a result, fossils pushed to the surface by geological forces are quickly eroded and damaged, before anyone can attain the permits necessary for collecting them.

"They aren't considering the fossils or the science," Larson said of the new regulations. "They don't understand that as [the fossils] are weathering out, they're being destroyed."

But despite the legal troubles that plagued him in the 90s and the restrictions that continue to limit him today, Larson has rebuilt the Black Hills Institute into one of the most competitive fossil collections in the world.

"I do it all the time," he said of fossil hunting. "It's what I do. Museums are somewhat hampered. They maybe have a field season of a couple of weeks a year. But if the sun is shining out and it's above freezing, I can go out any day of the year I want." 

"That's why we've dug up 10 T-Rexes now," he continued. "Per square inch, we have more dinosaurs than any museum in the world. Nobody can beat that."