The story behind the heist at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences | Wake County | Indy Week
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The story behind the heist at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences 

After the baby Edmontosaurus was stolen, only one remained atop the nest.

Photo by John H. Tucker

After the baby Edmontosaurus was stolen, only one remained atop the nest.

The Edmontosaurus is doomed from the start.

Newly hatched, Baby Eddie enters the world in peril. The infant dinosaur is born 70 million years ago on the banks of the ancient Cape Fear River on the coastal plain of Eastern North Carolina. The river delta is one of the largest in the country, and the vista is beautiful. It's a pity Eddie is destined to be eaten alive after birth.

Edmontosaurus are part of the duck-billed hadrosaurid species. They are huge, but gentle herbivores who traveled in packs during the Cretaceous period. They colonized swaths of land 10 square miles large, establishing feeding areas near water. Young Eddie emerged from a batch of eggs laid by his mother, who filled her nest with rotting vegetation to protect her incubating offspring. But they were sitting ducks.

The Cape Fear Basin is also home to albertosaurs—vicious carnivores who could snap the bones of its prey for an easy dinner. For weeks Eddie's mother stood guard over her eggs, unaware that one hungry albertosaurus—Big Albert—was lurking.

Shortly after Eddie and his sister are born, Big Albert crashes through the underbrush. Startled, Eddie's mother bellows. A crocodile flees into a nearby brush, and soft-shell turtles slip into the water. Wading birds flap over Atlantic white cedars. A squirrel-like Ptilodus dashes into a hiding place near ferns and magnolias.

Big Albert snarls. Eddie is lunchmeat.

But just before Albert attacks, time and space suddenly stand still. And millions of years later, in 2014, during that frozen capsule of evolution, Logan Ritchey, a 21-year-old from Raleigh, hurdles the glass embankment separating the Edmontosaurus from the rest of the prehistoric exhibit at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, and scoops Eddie into his arms.

Ritchey hops back over the embankment and tucks the baby dinosaur into his companion's purse. Quickly the couple whisks Eddie away, far from Albert's jaws.

Video by the NC Department of Public Safety

Roy Campbell likens his job to working in a chocolate factory. The 63-year-old is in his 22nd year with the natural sciences museum in downtown Raleigh, where he directs exhibits and digital media, and offers tours.

The prehistoric exhibit, which opened in 2000 inside the museum's new building, posed the biggest challenge of Campbell's career, requiring several years of raising public awareness and money. The new building offered protection for the museum's relics, and afforded an opportunity to showcase the state's rich prehistoric history. "The geo-diversity and bio-diversity of North Carolina is quite amazing," Campbell says.

Inside a nondescript office in the museum basement, Campbell pops a 1998 video cassette into a slot in a small television. Through the fuzzy static, a woman with big, billowy hair discusses Edmontosaurs as she stands next to a diorama. The dioramas—man-made representations of a historic scene or story, filled with custom-designed, made-to-scale models of historic animal and plant life—took five years to build, "a marathon," Campbell says.

Each diorama is a trial-and-error process, requiring constant adjustments and feedback from scientists to ensure accurate dimensions and look.

"The sculptor isn't painting out of whimsy," says Campbell. "These are unique prototypes based on the best estimates scientists can give. They are not massed produced like cars or gift-shop toys. They are first-and-only models."

Near the woman's feet rests a nest with a few cracked eggs. Atop the nest is Baby Eddie, sculpted from modeling clay and polymer resin by California artists. He is about 13 inches long, and worth about $10,000.

The original design for the dioarama. The Edmontosaurus (center) was the largest of the duck-billed hadrosaurid species, indigenous to North America. They could grow to be as large as 40 feet and had up to 1,000 teeth, which regrew if one was lost. - ILLUSTRATION COURTESY OF N.C. MUSEUM OF NATURAL SCIENCES
  • Illustration Courtesy of N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences
  • The original design for the dioarama. The Edmontosaurus (center) was the largest of the duck-billed hadrosaurid species, indigenous to North America. They could grow to be as large as 40 feet and had up to 1,000 teeth, which regrew if one was lost.

The North Carolina Museum of History got hit first. Earlier that afternoon, another larceny occurred there, after Logan Ritchey and Alyssa Ann Lavacca, a 21-year-old from Holly Springs, allegedly lifted less than $1,000 worth of property. Then Ritchy and Lavacca headed to the natural science museum to grab Baby Eddie. Video footage captured images of the couple passing the 35-foot Edmontosaurus diorama while other visitors milled about. Three minutes later they returned for the heist.

Hours afterward, Campbell received a message from a security guard: "One of your dioramas has been hit."

Campbell bristled. I don't need this, he thought.

State Capitol Police investigators scoured the footage and took fingerprints. It was the biggest heist in the museum's recent history. In order to provide an immersive experience for visitors, the dioramas were built without glass protection, but the plant and animal models intentionally had been placed out of reach. Sometimes jumping children grab leaves from trees—a mischievous act known as "pruning"—and on rarer occasions there have been larcenies. But never one so brazen, says Campbell.

It's possible Baby Eddie's mold still exists. But the design studio that made him has closed and Eddie's mold would need to be tracked down from a warehouse, recast and painted. "It really is a beautiful model with sparkling eyes, intricate wrinkles along its belly line and wonderfully subtle dappled shades of green along its back," Campbell says. "It's not just the monetary value. It has cultural value to people in North Carolina, and the kids probably don't understand that."

Two days passed. The Capitol Police released a video to the public depicting the dinosaur kidnapping. That evening after business hours, a man quietly dropped off a bag containing a nearly intact-Eddie close to a service entrance of the museum. Eddie returned with a few scrapes and a piece of tail missing, Campbell says, "but he should be ready to roar again after a little touch up."

The following morning, Ritchey and Lavacca turned themselves in. They are charged with felony counts of theft or destruction of the public property of a museum or a library, and conspiracy to commit felony larceny; the charges include the larceny from the history museum. They are out on bail and cooperating with investigators, although they did not give a motive, a Department of Public Safety spokesperson said.

The day after their arrests, Campbell offers a tour of the prehistoric exhibit, taking a chronological route through the Triassic and Jurassic periods. Finally he arrives at the Cretaceous period and the Edmontosaurus diorama.

"The scene of the crime," he says.

Campbell points to the nest filled with melon-sized eggs. Only one baby Edmontosaurus remains. "Tell me she's not lonely," says Campbell, pointing to the tiny dinosaur. "She misses her brother."

Campbell suspects the heist was the result of "kids on a lark," adding that Ritchey and Lavacca "did the right thing" by turning the baby dinosaur in. "They could have destroyed the evidence, and that would have been terrible."

Campbell looks forward to placing the missing dinosaur back in the diorama. "We'll be happy to see our baby Edmontosaurus reunited with his sibling," he says.

Campbell continues his tour. A few feet from the Edmotosaurus nest, Big Albert silently waits.

This article appeared in print with the headline "One of our dinosaurs is missing"

  • How the Edmontosaurus on display went missing

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