Sunday, January 13, 2008
It seemed like the discovery of a lifetime for Joe Taylor – half of an Allosaurus dinosaur skeleton with a perfectly intact head.
Instead, unearthing the extremely rare fossil marked the beginning of a chain of events that may ultimately result in Taylor’s financial ruin.
“It has been nothing but a nightmare,” Taylor said recently from the Mt. Blanco Fossil Museum, which he opened in Crosbyton almost a decade ago. The museum features hundreds of actual dinosaur bones and casts, some made from fossils Taylor found and later sold to a museum or university.
Seven years after Taylor and a team of amateur archaeologists dug up the Allosaurus, Taylor is on the verge of losing his museum due to a drawn-out legal battle over rights of that discovery.
He’s hopeful the sale later this month of a mastodon skull, perhaps his most prized possession, will net enough money to save his business.
As a creationist paleontologist – who believes dinosaurs lived thousands and not millions of years ago – there’s no doubt Taylor has a maverick reputation according to many in the dinosaur-digging community.
But it’s not some creation-bashing evolutionist plotting against Taylor.
It’s one of his own, another Christian paleontologist and former colleague of Taylor who is suing him for almost $130,000 over the Allosaurus debacle.
That’s the most heart-wrenching part of this whole ordeal, Taylor says.
“This is friendly fire,” he said. “It’s greed. It’s about money and fame.”
Back in time
The Allosaurus was a large, meat-eating dinosaur that lived between 155 and 145 million years ago, according to most scientists.
Taylor, and other creationists, say the Allosaurus and other dinosaurs lived on Earth several thousand years ago and were wiped out by a worldwide flood survived by Noah. The museum features a display on Noah and his ark.
But that’s a whole other story.
This story is about one particular Allosaurus.
Back in 2001, Taylor was contacted by a landowner outside Dinosaur, Colo., who wanted Taylor to oversee a joint effort between a group of aspiring home-schooled junior archaeologists and a professional excavation team. The team struck dino gold when it found the Allosaurus. That, they all agree on.
But there are several versions of exactly who in the group should be credited with the discovery.
For several years after the find, both sides issued their versions of what happened at the excavation site.
A documentary was made, Web sites were established, letter-writing campaigns were organized – a full-fledged battle of words between the two sides erupted.
Then, in April 2004, everyone sat down and agreed to a settlement. The agreement ensured Taylor would be paid $124,843 for his share of the Allosaurus, which was sold to a third party for $200,000.
Part of the agreement, called a non-disparagement clause, stated neither side could talk badly about the other any more.
That’s where Taylor dug himself into a hole. A $130,000 hole.
That’s how much Taylor has to pay for the 20 disparaging comments he made against the claimants through various posts on the Internet, letters and e-mails between June 2005 and January 2007.
At $5,000 per disparaging comment, Taylor’s crusade to clear his name cost him $100,000, plus $29,399 in legal fees he has to fork over to the claimant – costing him more than he made on the Allosaurus find.
“Of course I can’t come up with anything near that,” Taylor said.
And that doesn’t include the thousands of dollars in legal costs Taylor has already paid leading up to the settlement.
Going for broke
Taylor says he’s in a classic David versus Goliath scenario, fighting against what he calls a mega-church with deep pockets and even deeper political influence.
Taylor didn’t want to name the organization he’s fighting, fearing that would add to his $100,000 bill.
“I can’t fight against a million dollars,” he said. “This has wiped us out. What are the chances that I can rebuild this business from scratch at 63 years old without a penny to spend?”
He has already sold a triceratops molding to help pay for the legal battle.
“That was hard but I had to do it to survive,” Taylor said. “It felt like I was selling my daughter to the highest bidder.”
In the meantime, Taylor is hoping to either get an appeal filed or earn enough money from the sale of a mastodon skull to pay off his legal debts and remain in business.
The mastodon skull, the largest ever found, will be auctioned January 20 in Dallas as part of the Signature Natural History Auction.
Bids for the “Lone Star” skull, which Taylor took possession of in 2004 after a crew found it in a gravel pit near La Grange, start at $120,000.
“Hopefully, some rich Texan will buy it for $1 million,” Taylor said.
If not, Taylor says he faces an uncertain future, which could include closure of his museum.