Five dinosaur hunters who found the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton ever dug up have been acquitted of charges that they illegally collected fossils on federal land.
The verdict is a major blow to the government, which had spent millions of dollars and four years on the case.
Pete Larson, co-owner of the private Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, and four other institute officers were accused of pilfering hundreds of fossils from federal land.
They were convicted of several lesser offenses, including customs violations related to the import and export of fossils, but defense lawyer Pat Duffy said he would appeal Tuesday's verdict.
Among the fossils seized when federal agents raided the institute was that of the 65-million-year-old T. rex nicknamed Sue, which was discovered near Faith in 1990. Paleontologists say it is the most complete tyrannosaurus skeleton ever found.
Although none of the criminal charges mentioned Sue, the federal government has kept the fossil, claiming it was illegally taken from the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation.
Federal courts have since ruled that the skeleton belongs to Maurice Williams, a Cheyenne River Sioux Indian who lived on the land. The fossil hunters, however, are preparing to try to recover Sue, Duffy said.