Florida Man Arrested On Dinosaur Fossil Smuggling Charges
Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
The saga continues for a Tarbosaurus dinosaur fossil from Mongolia. In the latest act, a Florida man wanted for allegedly smuggling a host of prehistoric fossils, including the Tarbosaurus skeleton which had been recently sold illegally through Heritage Auctions, was arrested on Wednesday, authorities reported.
Eric Prokopi, 38, of Gainesville, Fla., was arrested on charges that he illegally smuggled numerous dinosaur fossils into America with intent to distribute. The arrest comes amid a long-fought international custody battle over the skeleton of the Tarbosaurus (also known as the Tyrannosaurus bataar). The US government seized the fossil shortly after it sold at auction in Manhattan for just over $1 million.
Preet Bharara, US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said the government’s “recent seizure of the [fossil] from Eric Prokopi was merely the tip of the iceberg…Our investigation uncovered a one-man black market in prehistoric fossils.”
The seizure of the skeleton came after Mongolia filed a restraining order to prevent the fossil from being released, despite the fact it had already being sold. Mongolian officials stated at the time that the fossil had been wrongfully taken from the Gobi Desert more than 10 years ago by looters.
Under a 1942 Mongolian antiquities law, all dinosaur fossils are considered property of the Mongolian government and are deemed “one-of-a-kind rare items” prohibited from being moved abroad and being sold for private gain.
Prokopi, a commercial paleontologist who sells coral, fossils and other natural artifacts through his home-based business (www.everything-earth.com), now stands accused of smuggling numerous fossils out of Mongolia and China as far back as 2007 and selling them at auction and through individual sales, earning an enormous criminal profit.
If convicted of the charges brought against him, Prokopi could face up to 35 years in prison.
According to the complaint, the evidence against Prokopi includes a photograph taken by a Mongolian citizen that shows the Prokopi “physically taking bones out of the ground” at an excavation site in Mongolia.
When the fossil was seized back in June, Prokopi said in a statement the “import documents are not fraudulent, a truth I am confident will be brought to light in the coming weeks.”
However, all evidence gathered points to heavily fraudulent activity.
After careful examination of the bones, Canadian paleontologist determined the 8-foot-tall, 24-foot-long skeleton did in fact come from the Gobi Desert and had been excavated, as Mongolian officials had previously stated, sometime between 1995 and 2005. The researchers further declared the skeleton in question is from a species that has “only ever been recovered from the Nemegt basin and adjacent regions in Mongolia,” and had no problem confirming this specimen did in fact come from Mongolia.
Prokopi will likely face more charges, as the complaint also accuses Prokopi of smuggling other prehistoric bones from Mongolia and China, including: a duckbilled herbivore, known as Saurolophus angustirostris, which was sold to a California gallery in May 2012 for $75,000; a Gallimimus and Oviraptor, which Prokopi told a trader via email in 2010 was found in Mongolia; and a Microraptor, fraudulently described on shipping documents as a “sample of craft rock” valued at around $100.
The complaint said Prokopi often undervalued the contents of shipments in shipping documents and mislabeled them as “fossil specimens” from Japan.
According to the complaint, Prokopi told the Heritage Auctions, the company that handled the sale of the Tarbosaurus, that efforts by Mongolian President Tsakhia Elbegdorj to prevent the sale would simply make stopping the trade in fossils even more difficult.
“If he only wants to take the skeleton and try to put an end to the black market, he will have a fight and will only drive the black market deeper underground,” Prokopi wrote in an email quoted in the criminal complaint.
Elbegdorj commended the US government for their efforts to try to stop the theft and sale of cultural artifacts, according to a statement by the Mongolian government’s Houston-based attorney Robert Painter.
“The two governments’ continued cooperation in investigating this important matter will have a chilling effect on the global market for illegally obtained fossils,” he said.