Prisoners Track Fossilized Footprints Of Prehistoric Predators

Wayne Covington hasn't seen "Jurassic Park." The film hasn't made it yet to Graterford Prison, where he's in Year 24 of a life sentence for murder.

But Covington doesn't need any help from Hollywood to learn about dinosaurs.

On Nov. 6, on the Pennsylvania prison grounds, he found the first of dozens of fossilized footprints - more than 100 at last count - that a state paleontologist has determined were made by some of the earliest dinosaurs.

Although it is not the first such discovery in Pennsylvania, experts say, the Graterford find has turned out to be significant, so much so that the fossils will be displayed at a museum in Harrisburg, the state capital.

Now, every day after work, Covington and four other inmates head down to a muddy, buggy ravine on the prison grounds to continue their dig into prehistory.

Covington, 44, who comes from Upper Chichester, Pa., near Philadelphia, found the first print by accident. But this former member of the Pagans motorcycle gang has skills and interests that enabled him to recognize its importance.

Covington works outside the walls on the prison farm, with a dairy herd that provides milk for the prison's 3,500 inmates. Over the past decade or so, he has found many Indian artifacts on the property.

He was searching for arrowheads, he said, when he found the footprint. "I had just got done walking the fence line" - there to keep in cows, not inmates - "and my boss said I could go down by the warden's house to look for artifacts," Covington said.

He took a shortcut through a ravine, he said, and "for some reason, I'm not sure why," struck a shale outcropping along the ravine wall with the hammer he was carrying to straighten fence posts.

"The rock fell open, and there was a perfect print," he said. "It was three-toed, but I knew it couldn't be a bird."

He knew that because he was aware from his work on the Indian sites that the bedrock in the area was Triassic, from the period before the Jurassic. "I remembered reading that there weren't any birds until the Jurassic, so I figured I must have found a dinosaur track."

Robert Sullivan, the curator of paleontology and geology at the State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg, was contacted after the discovery. He identified the print as that of a dinosaur from the late Triassic Period, about 220 million years ago.

Sullivan said the find was important "because we're seeing these prints in their stratigraphic context."

"The prints that have been available before are one or two chopped out, with very little context of how they were positioned. With a track way like this, you can get information about how fast the dinosaurs were walking and what they might have been doing."

Slabs being excavated from the site by Covington, his fellow inmates and the museum staff will be on display at the museum in about a year.

Sullivan said the dinosaurs tramping on the Graterford property millions of years ago might have been sharp-toothed, meat-eating creatures called Coelophysis.

They walked on their hind legs like the later, larger and more famous Tyrannosaurus rex, Sullivan said. Adults measured 6 to 9 feet tall and weighed 80 to 100 pounds. They probably preyed on small reptiles and possibly each other.

"It was probably a nasty world in a herd of Coelophysis," said Ted Daeschler, collections manager of the Academy of Natural Sciences, who hopes to get a few specimens from the Graterford site for the academy's dinosaur-print collection.

Daeschler thinks the land occupied by the prison was a mud flat near a lake in the Triassic Period.

"For prints to be preserved requires wet mud that the dinosaurs step on," he said. "This mud dries and hardens; then a new layer of wet mud covers it and dries in turn. Eventually the whole pile of mud becomes rock - shale - that will separate between layers."

Separating those layers and digging away dirt occupy most of the spare time of Covington and the other inmates - Logan, Gregory McNeal, James Whyatt and Ahmed Sabur - who have become hooked on the dig. All of them have served at least 20 years in prison, and all except Whyatt are serving life sentences.

Like Covington, they have prison jobs beyond the high concrete walls and live in a group of trailers called the Outside Service Unit.

Prison spokesman Alan LeFebvre said Graterford officials support the dig. A few members of the prison staff have joined the inmates from time to time, and Superintendent Donald Vaughn has given Covington and the other men permission to work through 6:30 p.m., when all inmates are supposed to be in their cells.

"The superintendent's philosophy is to let the men feel good about themselves by making a contribution," LeFebvre said. "They feel they are making a contribution to society by discovering these prints and sharing them with others. They're not thinking of ways to get in trouble, but ways to help."

Covington and the others have carved out the walls of the ravine in two areas, creating cavities about 10 yards long by 4 feet wide. To separate the layers of shale, they use a putty knife and a hammer.

"We don't have a lot of fancy tools," Covington said.

Covington, who has received a bachelor's degree from Villanova University while in prison, also has books on archaeology, correspondence from archaeologists and academic monographs on paleontology. He said prison life was tame compared with life in the Triassic Period.

"Sometimes I think about all the drama, everybody eating everybody else. What a lifestyle," he said.