PIERRE, S.D. — Pete Larson has discovered thousands of fossils around the world, co-authored three books and led the team that unearthed the largest and most complete Tyrannosaurus rex ever found. But there’s one black mark on his record: a federal conviction that landed him in prison almost 20 years ago.
His name could soon be cleared because of a documentary released last year at the Sundance Film Festival, which has brought his legal blemish back into the public eye and spurred South Dakota residents — and Larson himself — to push for President Barack Obama to give him a pardon.
“Dinosaur 13” details the discovery of “Sue,” a Tyrannosaurus rex that was more than 90 percent complete when it was discovered in 1990 in South Dakota. Federal agents seized the fossil in 1992, alleging that Larson’s Black Hills Institute of Geological Research and its employees took it from federal trust land.
While those charges never stuck, the federal government investigated the institute and brought more than 150 unrelated charges against its employees. Only Larson and two others were found guilty, and the paleontologist was sentenced to two years in federal prison for lying on customs documents about thousands of dollars used for fossil deals in Peru and Japan and illegally taking fossils from a national forest in Montana.
Larson’s backers have argued for more than two decades that he was overzealously prosecuted. The movie’s release has reignited that conversation, leading his supporters to push for the president to correct what they see as the government’s mistake.
The South Dakota Legislature overwhelmingly passed a resolution this session that’s been sent to Obama requesting a pardon for Larson. And Larson is working with an attorney on a formal pardon request — a move he hopes could clear his name and allow him to travel to Canada, where he said more fossil work is to be done.
“It’s something very special for me personally to have this piece of paper that says I’m pardoned for these offenses,” Larson said. “It’s an important mile marker to reach. Like climbing Mt. Everest, or finding your first T-rex — or finding your 10th T-rex.”
But not everyone thinks Larson’s name should be cleared or that the documentary, which portrays the paleontologists in the mid-1990s trial in a fairly sympathetic light, should prompt a pardon.
The lone two lawmakers — out of 105 — who opposed the resolution said they personally know people who were involved in the investigation, believe Larson’s crime was serious and that the conviction was justified.
“It’s possible that he was overzealously prosecuted but yet guilty of the crimes on which he was found guilty of,” said Rep. Mark Mickelson, R-Sioux Falls.
Neither he nor fellow Republican Rep. Lee Schoenbeck, of Watertown, has seen the film.
“Unless it had a detailed review of the criminal investigation file, I probably wouldn’t spend my time watching it,” Schoenbeck said. “There is no chance that any legislators knew the details of that criminal case that would warrant them for voting for that resolution.”
Rep. Mike Verchio, a Republican from Larson’s home of Hill City, said he introduced the resolution after an outpouring of requests from constituents who had watched the documentary and thought Larson was unjustly imprisoned.
The film aired worldwide and played in tiny theaters across South Dakota last summer, from Mitchell to Hill City, where the geological institute is headquartered.
“There were people who really weren’t aware of the background of the situation and how it happened and that seemed to be the catalyst right there,” said Verchio, who has watched the film several times. “It built up a tremendous amount of support here.”
It’s unclear how Larson’s pardon request and the support from the state of South Dakota will be received by the president. A spokesman said the White House doesn’t usually comment on individual cases.