Three fossils were reported stolen Tuesday from the Johnston Geology Museum located in the Science Hall at Emporia State. Two were of acanthodian fish, one juvinille and one adult, but the greatest loss was of a Xenacanthus, an early shark-like creature. The theft is believed that have occurred some time late Monday evening.
Because the fossil of the Xenacanthus would not be sold in the open market, it is hard to estimate its monetary value.
“Who knows how many of those specimens are in that material that was laid down in the query 220-230 million years ago,” said DeWayne Backhus, chair of the department of physical sciences. “This may be the only specimen that’s of that quality, so to try and put a value on it is extraordinarily difficult. A museum that wanted a choice specimen from that period of time might pay tens of thousands of dollars for it. It’s very hard to say.”
In fact, Michael Morales, director of the museum, suggested that money was a possible motivation for the theft.
“I can think of only two reasons off the top of my head that somebody would have taken them,” Morales said. “Because maybe they’re collectors, and that’s why they were so specific, or because unfortunately there’s a big black market in fossils.”
Morales said that fossils like the one of the Xenacanthus would not be sold legally other than to a museum because of its rare quality.
“Here’s the really sad thing that could happen,” Backhus said. “Somebody may try to alter the rock matrix that it’s in so that it’s not as identifiable, and in the process break the specimen, which would ruin some of the integrity of what is there.”
In regards to something valuable, Captain Chris Hoover, police and safety, said that it needs to be secured or it will be subject to human nature.
“If there’s something of value that somebody sees, there’s thieves among us,” Hoover said. “If it’s there and available, somebody’s out to try and take it from you.”
Morales said he believes that this theft was not done by one person.
“I suspect that it was a two-person thing, one person standing by the door to watch for people walking by and the other person working in the museum,” Morales said. “It wouldn’t take them long to do this, especially if they had an electric screw driver. They could have been in and out in probably five minutes.”
One problem in security is that there are no cameras, so the crime was not caught on tape. Morales said that low standards of security are an issue in the Science Hall.
“ESU has been pretty trusting on these sorts of things,” Morales said. “I think our security here is pretty lax. We’ve had multi-thousand dollar projectors stolen from rooms because they weren’t locked. I’ve come in on the weekends and had the doors to this building be unlocked when they should be locked, or noticed a rock propping open a door. Overall, I don’t think our security is very strong, at least in this building.”
Hoover agrees that better security should now be mandated because of the theft.
“I think there’s some security measures that certainly can be taken and there’s a lot of things that can be done to secure areas and items,” Hoover said. “But they’re gonna cost.”
However, Backhus believes that the money is better spent on things other than security.
“I’m a person who likes to trust until the trust is violated,” Backhus said. “Cameras could be installed but that spends money that we’d rather spend on instructional support for students.”
Regardless, the theft has influenced how security in the Johnston Geology Museum is handled. Right now, the cheapest method is to limit museum visitation.
“Unfortunately we’re going to have to change our policy,” Morales said. “We’re going to shut down by 5 p.m. instead of leaving it open until sometimes 10 p.m. We used to have it open on Saturday mornings, but we’re probably going to have to stop that too. It’s just too difficult to keep an eye on it.”
As far as convicting a criminal, public awareness of the crime is the first step in solving it.
“These kinds of cases aren’t going to be solved by forensic data,” Morales said. “We don’t have DNA or fingerprints or anything like that, we don’t have any eye witnesses or cameras. What it’s going to take is people who know about it and are outraged at the idea of stealing something that’s supposed to be for everybody would inform people to help recover the material.”
Nevertheless, Morales would just like to see the fossils returned.
“Our main goal is to get the specimens back,” Morales said. “Prosecution of the theft is secondary as far as I’m concerned.”
If you have any information regarding this crime, please contact campus police and safety or Morales.
Sarah Shaw/The Bulletin