Fossil smuggler pleads guilty

Gainseville man illegally imported valuable dinosaur remains

NEW YORK - A Gainesville man pleaded guilty Thursday to engaging in a scheme to illegally import dinosaur fossils into the United States.

An investigation by  U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's and Homeland Security Investigations discovered Eric Prokopi was smuggling the fossils out of their native countries.

As part of his plea agreement Prokopi, 38, agreed to the forfeiture of a nearly complete Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton, the First bataar, which was looted from Mongolia and sold at auction in Manhattan for over $1 million.

The First bataar was the subject of a separate pending civil forfeiture action.  Prokopi also agreed to forfeit a second nearly complete Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton, a Saurolophus skeleton, and an Oviraptor skeleton, all of which he possessed and were recently recovered by the government. 

In addition, Prokopi will forfeit his interest in a third Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton believed to be located in Great Britain. All of the fossils originated in Mongolia.  The skeleton of a Chinese flying dinosaur that Prokopi illegally imported has already been administratively forfeited.

According to court documents, and statements made in Manhattan federal court, Prokopi owned and ran a business out of his Florida home and is a self-described commercial paleontologist.  He bought and sold whole and partial fossilized dinosaur skeletons.  Between 2010 and 2012, he acquired dinosaur fossils from foreign countries and unlawfully transported them to the United States, misrepresenting the contents of shipments on customs forms. Many of the fossils were unlawfully taken from Mongolia in violation of Mongolian laws declaring dinosaur fossils to be the property of the Government of Mongolia, and criminalizing their export from the country.

Aware that the dinosaur fossils had been removed from Mongolia illegally, Prokopi worked with others to bring these dinosaur fossils into the United States, using false or misleading statements on customs forms concerning their identity, origin and value. He then sold or attempted to sell these fossils.

Among the fossils unlawfully procured, transported or sold in this fashion were the first bataar and an additional nearly complete Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton (the second bataar), two Saurolophus skeletons, one of which was sold to the I.M. Chait Gallery in California for $75,000, and two Oviraptor skeletons. The Saurolophus skeleton sold to the auction house was seized in September 2012.  The remaining Saurolophus skeleton and the Oviraptor skeletons were recovered from Prokopi during the investigation.

Tyrannosaurus bataar was a carnivorous dinosaur that lived during the late Cretaceous period, about 70 million years ago. The Saurolophus, which also lived during the late Cretaceous period, was a duckbilled, plant-eating dinosaur. The Oviraptor, of the same time period, featured a parrot-like skull.

Earlier, in 2010, Prokopi illegally imported into the United States the fossilized remains of a small, flying dinosaur from China, by directing another individual to make false claims on importation paperwork.

Prokopi pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy with respect to the Chinese flying dinosaur, one count of entry of goods by means of false statements with respect to the Mongolian dinosaurs, and one count of interstate and foreign transportation of goods converted and taken by fraud.  He faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison on the conspiracy count, a maximum of two years on the entry of goods by means of false statements count, and a maximum of 10 years on the interstate transportation of goods converted and taken by fraud. 

In addition, Prokopi has agreed to forfeit the proceeds of his offense, including but not limited to, the first bataar, the second bataar, any and all interest in the Tyrannosaurus skeleton believed to be in Great Britain, the Saurolophus and Oviraptor skeletons that had been in Prokopi's custody, and any and all other fossil parts of Mongolian origin that Prokopi brought into the country between 2010 and 2012.  For each of the three counts in the information, Prokopi faces a maximum fine of $250,000 or twice the gross gain or loss from the offense.  Prokopi is scheduled to be sentenced by U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein April 25, 2013.

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