The case of the missing feet

Our dog Molly in the snow

Our dog Molly in the snow

Having woken up to a rather dreich morning of snow, fed the hens and ducks, filled the bird feeders, watched two pairs of tree sparrows and a single male brambling amongst the host of chaffinches, greenfinches, tree creepers, collared doves, woodpigeons, blackbirds and dunnocks at and under the feeders, walked Molly the dog I thought I might as well do another blog. This blog relates to a case dealt with by Sgt Ian Guildford, who was at that time wildlife crime officer with South Wales Police and is now utilising his talents and experience as an investigation support officer with the NWCU. The tale is included in my book The Thin Green Line and, because it was both unusual and had an international aspect, was one that that the media showed considerable interest in during the launch of the book.

The Case of the Missing Feet

Wildlife crime officers do not just deal with live or dead creatures or plants.  The role extends to investigating crime that involves parts or derivatives of once-living things.  This might include elephant ivory, parts of tigers, bears and other animals that may be constituents of Traditional Medicines, or even wood from rare trees such as ramin.  Since 2004, at least in Scotland, the police responsibility has also been extended to include the investigation of offences committed against specially protected areas, such as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs).  Ian’s next case goes beyond even these more obscure and unusual investigations and, incredibly, takes us back many millions of years.

The case relates to ‘third party’ damage to a SSSI in the Barry area of South Wales. The site in question is called the Bendrick Rock SSSI, notified as an SSSI in 1996 due to its geological composition. Very unusually this is the presence of three-toed dinosaur footprints in the bedrock on the shore. The footprints date back 200 million years when the land formed part of the shore of a large lake. The land is a pretty non-descript piece of coastline adjoining Barry Docks and until quite recently owned by Associated British Ports, who also own Barry Docks.

The police first became aware that something was amiss when the senior geologist for CCW was told that fossilised dinosaur footprints – allegedly from Bendrick rock – had appeared for sale at a Gem and Mineral Fair in Arizona. Alerted to the fact that some of the fossilised prints may have been removed a visit to the site confirmed that a large section of rock containing the prints was gone. At the same time, fossilised prints allegedly from this site began to appear for sale in other locations around the UK. One print was found advertised for sale on the internet by a dealer based in Hertfordshire. Enquiries by the local police revealed that this had been sold for £199, in good faith, to a gentleman living in Tennessee, USA. A number of fossils then appeared on display and for sale in a shop in Lyme Regis. These were being sold for £30 up to £80 for a matching pair.

A warrant under the Theft Act was therefore obtained by a local police wildlife crime officer and subsequently 15 fossils were recovered from the shop, while the owner surrendered three more which were at his home address. These fossils varied in size from between 5” and 15” square.

A picture was starting to emerge in relation to the route that these fossils had taken from the beach in South Wales to the various locations in which they were recovered. This appeared to implicate a local amateur fossil collector living in the Cardiff area.

Ian takes up the story, “The fossil that had been sold from the dealer in Hertfordshire subsequently made an appearance on the internet trading site, ebay. I managed to contact the seller, whose home was in Tennessee.  When the origin of the fossil was explained to him and he was told that it had been taken illegally he promptly withdrew it from sale.

Having located the source of the fossils we formally interviewed the suspect in Cardiff in the company of a duty solicitor. During the interview he admitted collecting the fossils but said that he had done this over a period of years rather than all at once. In fact he seemed to be obsessed by the site and described it as a ‘haven he could escape to.’ Having established that he was responsible for the taking of the fossils, I then asked him if he knew whether the site was a protected site fully expecting him to deny all knowledge of the site’s protection, the usual reply to this question. I was flabbergasted when he admitted that he was fully aware that it was a SSSI and had known this for some considerable time.”

With the enquiries complete an unusual situation arose in that the collector from Cardiff had committed two different offences relating to the same set of circumstances, one reportable by CCW and the other by the police.  These were the offence of ‘third party’ damage to an SSSI, and the other being theft, the latter due to the site (and its fossil contents) being owned by Associated British Ports.

Advice was sought from both CCW and the Crown Prosecution Service in relation to a course of action. After considering all aspects of the case including the personal background of the offender it was decided that CCW would take the lead in the case and they subsequently decided to issue him with a formal caution. In view of this the CPS advised that no further action should be taken by the police in relation to the offence of theft.

Having resolved the prosecution question relating to the person who took the fossils, Ian turned his thoughts to those who had been involved in trading them. He was unable to prove that the dealers involved in the case had any knowledge that the fossils had been stolen from a SSSI or that they were in fact stolen property.  Due to this he was unable to take any action against these people. Thankfully the majority of the rocks were recovered. This meant that a lot of the dealers were ultimately out of pocket, a degree of punishment in itself. After the conclusion of the case many of the remainder of the fossils were recovered when they continued to turn up at various locations including Boscastle in Cornwall and Abergavenny market.

Though there was no prosecution, the most important aspect of this case is that it sent a message out to those involved in the fossil trade that the police would rigorously investigate reports of offences and take action where necessary.

See The Thin Green Line and other books on this blog. If you would like a signed copy contact me on alanstewart164@btinternet.com

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