GREAT FALLS, Mont. (CBS/AP) It's a crime millions of years in the making.
Renowned dinosaur hunter Nathan Murphy was sentenced Wednesday to four months in a halfway house, three years probation and 300 hours of community service after pleading guilty to stealing fossils.
U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon also ordered Murphy to pay $17,325 in restitution.
Murphy was accused of stealing 13 dinosaur bones from central Montana's Hell Creek badlands in 2006. He pleaded guilty in April to theft of government property.
The case provided a rare glimpse into the black-market fossil trade while sinking the reputation of the 51-year-old, self-taught paleontologist who rose to fame on his discovery of the world's best-preserved fossil, known as Leonardo, in 2000.
"I have no excuse. I was wrong and I know it," Murphy told Haddon during his sentencing hearing. "I want you to know that this has devastated my life."
Murphy was sentenced last month to 60 days in jail on a separate state count involving a stolen raptor fossil. Federal prosecutors wanted him to serve an additional 10 months on the federal charge, but Haddon said prison time was not warranted.
Still, U.S. Attorney Bill Mercer said the case would serve as a deterrent to others who would steal fossils from public lands.
"We want to avoid ever having to prosecute a case like this again," he said. "The best way we can deter is to make sure that if people are on federal land excavating for dinosaurs, they're going to be prosecuted for it."
The government sought the $17,325 in restitution for damage done to public lands during Murphy's excavations.
Murphy had sought the more lenient sentence of three years probation plus restitution. His lawyer, Michael Moses, said Murphy cooperated with investigators and that the scientific integrity of the fossils was not compromised by Murphy's digging.
Prosecutors in the state case said Murphy sought to have casts made of the stolen raptor that could have brought him up to $400,000 from the sale of reproductions.
While it's legal to take and sell bones from private property, federal law generally prevents their removal from public lands without a research permit. But the remoteness of many prime fossil grounds in Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and other western states makes enforcement difficult.
Murphy's theft case was pending when President Barack Obama signed a law in March setting a penalty of up to five years for stealing bones or other fossils from public land.
The Paleontological Resource Protection Act is the country's first-ever law to specifically protect fossils. It came too late to apply to Murphy's case.
An expert in the field said some fossil thieves would carry on regardless. But Scott Foss, a regional paleontologist with the Bureau of Land Management in Utah, said the new law — combined with Murphy's conviction — would force fossil buyers to question where bones came from to avoid becoming accomplices to a crime.
"The people who are engaged in the trade, they're going to have to ask, 'Is it legal to buy this?"' he said.
Murphy runs a business in Billings that charges customers $200 a day to participate in dinosaur digs.
He was paleontology director at the Dinosaur Field Station in Malta, Mont., for 15 years before resigning in July 2007 — about the same time state and federal authorities began investigating his activities.