Following the footprints: Dinosaur tracks gifted to Amherst College 17 years after poachers stole them

  • Hayley Singleton, the head of collections and operations at the Beneski Museum of Natural History, speaks in front of a slab of rock containing dinosaur footprints. Behind her stand retired environmental police officer David Kinner, center, and Lt. Col. Anthony Abdal-Khabir of the Massachusetts Environmental Police, both of whom have been involved in the case of the fossil, which was poached from private land in Gill in 2002. The state donated the fossil to the Beneski Museum on Thursday, May 23, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Hayley Singleton, the head of collections and operations at the Beneski Museum of Natural History, listens during the donation of a slab of rock containing dinosaur footprints. The fossil, which was poached from private land in Gill in 2002 was donated by the state police to the Beneski Museum on Thursday, May 23, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A slab of rock containing dinosaur footprints donated to the Beneski Museum of Natural History at Amherst College by the Massachusetts Environmental Police. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Hayley Singleton, the head of collections and operations at the Beneski Museum of Natural History at Amherst College, places her hand over the slab of rock containing dinosaur footprints. Behind her stand Lt. Col. Anthony Abdal-Khabir, right, of the Massachusetts Environmental Police, and retired environmental police officer David Kinner, partially hidden, center, both of whom have been involved in the case of the fossil, which was poached from private land in Gill in 2002. The state donated the fossil to the museum on Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 5/23/2019 6:45:31 PM

AMHERST — Back in 2002, Gill Police Officer Christopher Redmond was on patrol when he saw two men scrambling up a steep embankment carrying heavy duffel bags — which struck him as suspicious. 

One of the men said he was collecting stone for a fireplace. But that story didn’t make any sense to Redmond. And when he saw the contents of the bags, he discovered the real haul: poached slabs of stone that contained dinosaur tracks, which the men had chiseled out of the rock and, according to police, intended to sell online. 

Redmond called Massachusetts Environmental Police Officer Dave Kinner, who took on the case with him. From there, one of the stones had a brief moment in the sun. The Boston Globe covered the case in 2004, and that same year the rock made the journey out to Boston, where Kinner gave testimony in favor of a bill filed by late Northampton Rep. Peter Kocot meant to strengthen anti-poaching laws and protections for such artifacts.

Eventually, the fossil was put into storage, where it sat on a shelf for nearly two decades. But on Thursday, some 17 years after the rock was discovered stolen, the dinosaur footprints finally found a permanent home: Amherst College’s Beneski Museum of Natural History.

“I’ve been thinking about this day for literally years and years and years,” said Lt. Col. Anthony Abdal-Khabir of the Massachusetts Environmental Police, one of several officers involved in the case who drove out to deliver the gift to Amherst College on Thursday.

Kinner, who initially responded to Redmond’s call, was also there on Thursday. “I feel glad it’s over,” he said.

The Connecticut River Valley is home to rich fossil beds. And because of the environmental conditions, such dinosaur footprints have been well preserved, unlike skeletal remains, according to Tekla Harms, an Amherst College geology professor and co-director of the museum.

The dinosaur that left these particular footprints is unknown, though the museum’s curators said they have a list of possible candidates, including the dilophosaurus. “We have a size range,” said Hayley Singleton, the head of collections and operations. “But it could have been an herbivore, it could have been a carnivore. We don’t know.” She added that the dinosaur footprints are around 200 million years old, from the Jurassic Period.

Known as a fossil trackway, the rocks with footprints or other similar markings can provide invaluable insight to researchers. And many scientists come to the Beneski Museum to study Amherst College’s sizable collection of trackways, which can be used to determine how fast dinosaurs moved, for example, whether they migrated or whether their young traveled with them.

“These are things you would never learn from skeletal material,” Harms said.

The trackways are the Beneski Museum’s most researched collection by far, said Singleton. And it was in the museum’s trackway room where Amherst College and Environmental Police officials held an impromptu press conference on Thursday.

Singleton said that other trackway fossils also have interesting stories — some were removed from sidewalks, and one was used as a doorstop. But the latest addition is a unique and important case, she added.

“The public needs to be aware people are taking resources that belong to them,” she said.

According to the environmental police, this kind of poaching is still happening. They said such fossils are being chipped away from the region’s remote locations and sold for top dollar to private collectors.

Abdal-Khabir lamented the fact that Kocot’s bill never made it to the governor’s desk, and he said that there has since been little movement in the Legislature to pass a bill that would allow for stricter penalties for poaching historical and cultural artifacts.

“Maybe this will stimulate that a little more,” he said.

The Gill police officer who first caught the poachers back in 2002 hopes so.

Redmond, who has since become Gill’s police chief, said he still remembers the case clearly. He said a dinosaur logo on one of the men’s baseball caps tipped him off to what the poachers were likely after.

He also remembers that it was hard to find appropriate charges to bring against the poacher. Eventually, the man was charged with trespassing and the theft of a rock, he and Abdal-Khabir separately recalled. Kocot had called for state lawmakers to impose greater fines on the theft of fossils and other historical relics.

“These fossils are part of Massachusetts and the history of this country,” Kocot, who died in February 2018, told the Globe in 2004. “And right now, fines are so low it is well worth the price to take them.”

Redmond said he wished the Legislature would continue that conversation. But for now, he’s just happy that the poached dinosaur footprints he discovered stolen in 2002 have landed at Amherst College.

“I’m glad that they’re finally in such a well-deserved home,” he said. “As long as they’ve been sitting in a state police lockup or whatever, it’s just a tiny blip in the whole story of the tracks themselves … it’s probably just a blink of an eye for them.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.

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