New documentary tells the story of Sue the T.rex and the troubles that followed her discovery

By Mike Thomas Staff Reporter

August 13, 2014 1:22PM

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Updated: August 14, 2014 7:19PM

Once married, former journalist Kristin Donnan and paleontologist Peter Larson have maintained a healthy dynamic.

Her “boyfriend,” Stan, lives in Hill City, S.D. His “best gal,” Sue, resides in Chicago. Instead of driving them apart, however, those relationships bring them closer together.

It helps immeasurably, of course, that Stan and Sue are Tyrannosaurus Rex fossils.

The former is on display at a museum run by the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, of which Larson is president. The latter — acquired at auction for a whopping $8.36 million after its much-publicized 1992 seizure by the U.S. government — has wowed crowds at the Field Museum of Natural History for 14 years. It is also the subject of a 2002 book Donnan and Larson co-wrote, “Rex Appeal: The Amazing Story of Sue, the Dinosaur That Changed Science, the Law, and My Life,” on which the new documentary “Dinosaur 13” (it begins a two-week run Friday at the Siskel Film Center, among other locations around town, and is also available On Demand) is partly based. An update of “Rex Appeal” is under way.

Larson, who with his colleagues and institute was slapped with an array of criminal charges relating to the excavation of Sue (she was found on federal land) and otherwise, vigorously maintained his innocence but ultimately was sentenced to two years in prison for violating Sue-unrelated customs laws related to the carrying of cash and travelers checks.

“We recently had a guy here in South Dakota who got off on probation, with no prison time, after killing his wife in a drunken rage,” Larson’s lawyer told the New York Times when Larson began his sentence in February 1996.

Since his release in 1998, Larson has visited the Field a dozen or so times, even though he was left off the invite list for Sue’s 2000 public debut. He was able to tag along as the guest of fossil hunter Sue Hendrickson, who discovered the astoundingly complete and well-preserved specimen in 1990 as part of Larson’s team and is its namesake.

Although the legal proceedings and prison stint that followed Sue’s seizure took a heavy emotional toll on the good-humored Larson, he insists there is no lingering bitterness.

“You can have your whole life swallowed by something like that,” he says during a recent interview at the Field with Donnan, “Dinosaur 13” director Todd Douglas Miller and soundtrack composer Matt Morton. “And it’s important to not go there. You have to work to stay away from that really bad place: ‘Oh, poor me.’ Feel[ing] sorry for yourself and stuff. But it’s important to do that. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be the winners. And we won. We made it through. Our business [the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research in South Dakota] is thriving. Our museum is still there, still up and running, and we have lots of kids come there as they do to the Field.”

He laments, though, that his museum is missing one crucial thing: Sue. While he and Donnan claim to be extremely pleased that the 42-foot-tall T. rex has found such a prominent perch, they’d like to see her a little more often. OK, a lot more often.

“We’re actually kind of working with [the Field] to hopefully be able to get a part of Sue back to Hill City,” Larson says. “Which would be fantastic if that can happen.

“It’s something that’s kind of our idea, but we’re hoping everybody’s on board with it, because it would be really cool.”

Larson declines to reveal more details, but a museum spokeswoman says Larson and his crew are interested in bringing a cast of Sue’s skull (the original weighs 600 pounds and is displayed separately from the rest of Sue, which is itself topped with a much lighter cast) to South Dakota, but “there haven’t been any official conversations.”

Like Donnan’s and Larson’s book, “Dinosaur 13” (so named because as of 1990, Sue was only the 13th T.rex fossil ever found) is at its core a love story — of passionate dinosaur hunters and their love for Sue; of the public’s love for their hometown heroes; of two people brought together in a time of crisis.

While Donnan reported on the Sue trials that ultimately ensnared Larson and to a lesser degree some of his colleagues, the pair began a relationship and got married. She insists, however, that her journalistic integrity remained intact.

“The thing that it added to me was agony, personal agony,” Donnan says. “But the story was the same, I found. The difficulty was in other people believing that the story was the same. So someone would say, ‘Well, she’s married to [Larson]. She just thinks that.’ But when any objective, neutral person would go out, they would come back with the same conclusions I was coming up with. And so I have a very rigid sense of ethics and I knew that I would do my job and that I would do it to the best of my ability. And I know I did. I interviewed people, I asked the hard questions, I didn’t flinch when they said whatever they said.”

“Dinosaur 13” director Miller, Donnan says, also made similar conclusions on his own “without a dog in the fight,” which pleased her greatly.

The biggest challenge, he says, was condensing everything — the discovery of Sue and the travails that followed, the story of Donnan and Larson and the abundance of science-related material — down to a couple of hours.

Hanging out with Larson, on the other hand, was a joy.

“When you go out in to the field with someone like Pete, it’s easy to become a nerd,” Miller says. “Because you’re going out on this truck into the wild, and you start seeing rock formations appear and all this stuff, and when you have a tour guide like him and he’s explaining, ‘This is the line of iridium where an asteroid hit six-and-a-half million years ago and anything underneath it is this and anything above it is that,’ it just makes you want to be passionate about it.”

Donnan chimes in. “There’s a point at which you switch drivers. Because if he’s driving and he starts shouting geology, then he runs off the road. So somebody else drives and he points and he tells you when to stop. Really. He’s almost crashed the car many times.”

Larson smiles and denies nothing. Despite his hardships and disappointments, he maintains an upbeat attitude of gratitude — especially and surprisingly when it comes to Sue.

Seeing her in the museum’s grand Stanley Field Hall, he says, brings back “a lot of really wonderful memories. Plus, every time I’m there, there’s kids surrounding her, there’s adults. The wonderful docents are telling the story of Sue to people. So it’s very rewarding to see her… get the accolades. She’s one of the greatest paleontological discoveries of all time and she’s here in Chicago where millions of people can see her.

“It’s the second best place she could be.”

Email: mthomas@suntimes.com

Twitter: @MikeTScribe

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