NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) – A Florida man has been charged with illegally importing dinosaur fossils into the United States from Mongolia and China.
Eric Prokopi, 38, was charged with conspiracy to smuggle illegal goods, possessing stolen property and making false statements, federal prosecutors in Manhattan announced Wednesday.
Prosecutors said Prokopi, who buys and sells whole and partial dinosaur skeletons out of his Florida home, illegally imported fossils that included a nearly complete Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton and a Saurolophus angustirostris skeleton from Mongolia as well as a Microraptor skeleton from China.
The Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton was seized by the government earlier this year so it could be returned to Mongolia.
“As alleged, our recent seizure of the Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton from Eric Prokopi was merely the tip of the iceberg – our
investigation uncovered a one-man black market in prehistoric fossils,” Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement. “In addition to our commitment to ensuring that these relics are returned to their countries of origin, we are equally
committed to shutting down Prokopi’s illegal business and holding him to account for his alleged crimes.”
Prosecutors said that between 2010 and 2012, Prokopi acquired the fossils from their countries of origin and illegally transported them to the U.S. by misrepresenting the contents of the shipments on customs forms.
When importing the Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton, prosecutors said Prokopi “made a number of misrepresentations about its identity, origin and value.”
The skeleton was later sold by Heritage Auctions in Manhattan for over $1 million, prosecutors said. The sale was pending the resolution of court proceedings that were initiated by the Mongolian government to get back the skeleton.
When he heard about the court proceedings, prosecutors said Prokopi responded by emailing Heritage Auctions stating in part, “If [the Mongolian president] 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.”
Another dinosaur was sold by a gallery in California, officials said. They said Prokopi also unlawfully sold fossils of two other dinosaurs.
Prokopi’s attorney, Michael McCullough, has said his client has done nothing wrong.
McCullough has said the government was wrong when it alleged that the skeleton pieces were brought into the country in one $15,000 shipment. He said there were three other shipments and only 37 percent of the completed skeleton came from one specimen.
Prokopi was arrested Wednesday morning in Gainesville, Florida. If convicted on all of the charges, he could face up to 35 years in prison.
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