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Why did the dinosaur disappear?

Millions of years after the creatures died off, a modern specimen is missing from its Plant City lair. Authorities are investigating.

By Ben Mongtomery, Times Staff Writer
Published December 17, 2007


PLANT CITY - Deep in the swamps of Dinosaur World, by the bank of a blackwater pond, two small holes in the Florida sand mark the spot where a dinosaur once crouched.

Her name was Coelophysis and she stood here 10 years, since Dinosaur World opened off Interstate 4, a still and undisturbed placeholder from the mid Triassic Period.

Until Thanksgiving night.

That's when someone some people, perhaps scaled the privacy fence near Harvey Tew Road, crept through the wilds and pried from the earth a 2-foot-tall, 4-foot-long dinosaur made of Styrofoam, wire and fiberglass.

Then, according to Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office report 07-705094, the person "fled the area undetected," dinosaur in tow.

The worker who activates the sprinklers at the park made the discovery the following morning and called the law.

"They put an APB out on it," said Shirley Rainbolt, who coordinates field trips at Dinosaur World.

Rainbolt surveyed the crime scene. She pointed out the thief's most likely means of entry: a wood and wire fence on the 8-acre park's northern boundary.

"I can't believe they got past this guy," she said, pointing to Ceratosaurus, a large predatory dinosaur with bladelike teeth and an imposing horn.

Since the theft, the staff at Dinosaur World has been wrestling with one big question.

"Why?" said Rainbolt. "What are you going to do with a dinosaur? Put it in your yard? Try to pawn it?"

This is where the mind runs wild. You picture Coelophysis positioned on a stained futon as a college dropout holds a water bong to her mouth. Or someone posting photos on the Web of a small dinosaur atop the Empire State Building.

"Who knows," said Rainbolt.

Lots of company

The theft is unprecedented at Dinosaur World. But it should be noted that the theft of colorful semipublic items is not at all uncommon in the Tampa Bay area.

In 1998, someone made off with a 4-foot-tall Mickey Mouse from a yard in Clearwater. A thief took a $5,000 Humpty Dumpty from an Indian Shores lawn in 2005. Last year, someone yanked a 50-pound Buddha from Nature Coast Botanical Garden in Spring Hill.

Some have happy endings. The bust of Columbia Restaurant matriarch Adela Gonzmart was snatched from the Ybor City landmark in December 2005, then turned up in a nearby yard. Someone hoisted a concrete lion from its perch on Snell Isle Boulevard in St. Petersburg, then returned it 10 days later.

No such luck for the 11-foot-tall, 400-pound novelty chair snatched from Bare-Lee Used Furniture in Brooksville in February.

"Still gone," said Lita Luz, who works at the store.

When she heard the news about the stolen dinosaur 50 miles to the south, Luz connected the dots.

"Someone is starting their own little city," she said.

Back at Dinosaur World, Rainbolt said workers are not getting their hopes up. They're wise to the fact that the Sheriff's Office deals with more pressing issues.

Dinosaur World hasn't quite been the same without Coelophysis, which was valued at about $2,000, even if it was a tiny thing.

"I would just always look at that one," said Polly Barett, 25, who coordinates parties at the park. "That one was, like, one of the scariest because it's small. It always looked like it was going to run up at you and bite your leg."

She seemed sad.

Near the holes where Coelophysis was rooted to the ground with concrete, two other small dinosaurs crouch in the ferns.

Witnesses.

Ben Montgomery can be reached at (727) 893-8650 or bmontgomery@sptimes.com.