Dinosaur Fossil Smuggler Pleads Guilty
January 1, 2013

Eric Prokopi Pleads Guilty For Smuggling Dinosaur Fossils

April Flowers for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Eric Prokopi, a Florida fossils dealer, has pled guilty to smuggling charges. He has agreed to give up the $1 million Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton seized by the U.S. government earlier this year after he attempted to auction it through Heritage Auctions.

Prokopi is giving up "Ty," the T. bataar that will eventually be returned to Mongolia, along with six other dinosaurs and various other bones in a deal that might win him a little leniency with the courts. He is facing charges that carry a potential sentence of up to 17 years in jail.

As redOrbit.com reported in June of this year, Mongolia President Elbegdorj Tsakhia commented, “We are one step closer to bringing this rare Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton back home to the people of Mongolia. Today we send a message to looters all over the world: We will not turn a blind eye to the marketplace of looted fossils.”

A 1942 Mongolian antiquities law makes all dinosaur fossils property of the government. They are deemed "one-of-a-kind rare items" prohibited from being moved abroad. Expert paleontologists from Canada certified that the T. bataar skeleton came from the Gobi Desert sometime between 1995 and 2005.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Martin S. Bell, in his statement before Magistrate Judge Ronald L. Ellis, said that there was a substantially complete Tyrannosaurus skeleton found at Prokopi's home in Gainesville, Florida. A third is thought to be in Great Britain, the Associated Press reported on Monday.

Bell reported that the government would also keep a Chinese flying dinosaur, a Saurolophus, which is a duckbilled, plant eating dinosaur from the Cretaceous period. Prokopi illegally imported the skeleton, along with two Oviraptor skeletons. The Oviraptor skeletons, with their parrot-like skulls, were found at Prokopi's home and another residential dwelling in Florida.

"It's among the larger dinosaur shopping lists you'll see today," Bell told the magistrate judge regarding the list of fossils seized from Prokopi.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said, "Fossils and ancient skeletal remains are part of the fabric of a country's natural history and cultural heritage, and black marketers like Prokopi who illegally export and sell these wonders, steal a slice of that history. We are pleased that we can now begin the process of returning these prehistoric fossils to their countries of origin."

Heritage Auctions sold the T. bataar, or Tarbosaurus, skeleton for $1.05 million in a deal that was suspended pending the outcome of litigation. Prokopi smuggled the bones from Mongolia by labeling them as reptile bones from Great Britain before assembling them into a complete skeleton.

Until his sentencing, scheduled for April 25, Prokopi remains free on bail. He had no comment this past week after his sentencing.

Last spring, however, Prokopi defended his handling of the skeleton. He stated that the value of the bones during shipping was labeled much lower than the eventual auction price because "it was loose, mostly broken bones and rocks with embedded bones. It was not what you see today, a virtually complete, mounted skeleton."

Prokopi's charges, which he pleaded guilty to, include conspiracy to import the Chinese flying dinosaur, entry of goods by means of false statements for importing the Mongolian dinosaurs, and one count of interstate and foreign transportation converted and taken by fraud.

Prokopi described his crimes to the court, stating that he sent an email to a fossils dealer in China in 2010, instructing the man to mislabel customs documents. These documents made it appear that the bones of the Chinese flying dinosaur were worth much less than they were. Between 2010 and 2012, Prokopi arranged for shipments of fossils from Mongolia to be mislabeled in customs documents showing their country of origin as Great Britain.

Evidence against Prokopi included a photograph clearly showing him “physically taking bones out of the ground” at a site in Mongolia, reported redOrbit.com's Lawrence LeBlond.

When the magistrate asked if the country of origin on the documents was an important fact, Prokopi answered, "Well, apparently," prompting a brief discussion between the prosecutor and the defense attorney.

Prokopi called the labeling purposefully "vague and misleading so that they didn't bring attention to the shipment."

When asked what would have occurred had he labeled the shipments accurately, Prokopi replied, "Probably nothing, or it may not have been allowed to be imported."