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Florida man pleads guilty to smuggling Asian dinosaur fossils

Tyrannosaurus bataar

A Florida fossil dealer’s guilty plea to charges of smuggling valuable fossils from China into the U.S. will see the forfeiture of more than a million dollars in dinosaur bones, fines that could top two hundred thousand dollars and a possible 17-year prison term.

As part of a plea deal announced by ICE on Dec. 28, fossil dealer Eric Prokopi, 38, agreed to forfeit a nearly complete Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton looted from Mongolia and sold at auction in Manhattan for more than $1 million. The skeleton was one of three Tyrannosaurus skeletons attributed to Prokopi’s smuggling activities in China and Mongolia and was the subject of a separate pending civil forfeiture action.

The investigation into Prokapi’s prolific smuggling activities was led by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).

Prokopi, said ICE, also agreed to forfeit a second nearly complete Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton, a Saurolophus skeleton, and an Oviraptor skeleton.

Prokopi will also forfeit his interest in a third Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton believed to be located in Great Britain, said ICE. The skeleton of a Chinese flying dinosaur that Prokopi illegally imported has already been administratively forfeited, it said.

According to court documents and statements, 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, said ICE. Between 2010 and 2012, he acquired dinosaur fossils from foreign countries and unlawfully transported them to the U.S., misrepresenting the contents of shipments on customs forms, drastically undervaluing some of them. 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, said ICE.

According to court documents, Prokapi was aware that the dinosaur fossils had been removed from Mongolia illegally, and he worked with others to the fossils into the U.S. using false or misleading statements on customs forms concerning their identity, origin and value.

Among the fossils unlawfully procured, transported or sold in the U.S., said ICE, were the two Tyranosaurus bataar skeletons, 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.

According to ICE, Prokopi pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy with respect to an illegally-imported Chinese flying dinosaur fossil, 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.

At sentencing said ICE, Prokapi 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.

Prokopi agreed to forfeit the proceeds of his offense, including, the Tyranosaurus bataar skeletons in the U.S. and all interest in the Tyrannosaurus skeleton believed to be in Great Britain, the Saurolophus and Oviraptor skeletons that had been in his  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, Prokopi faces a maximum fine of $250,000 or twice the gross gain or loss from the offense.

Prokopi is scheduled to be sentenced on April 25, 2013.


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