Cretaceous Crimes: Florida Dealer Pleads Guilty to Illegal Dinosaur Trafficking

A Florida man who illegally imported a trove of dinosaur bones from Mongolia and China pleaded guilty last Thursday to three felony counts. Eric Prokopi, a dealer based in Gainesville, was arrested back in October when around 440 pounds of fossils were seized from his home, according to Business Insider. All fossils found in Mongolia are, by law, the property of the state.

According to the Huffington Post, between 2010 and 2012 Prokopi had the customs forms for those fossils sent from Mongolia filled out to make them appear to be coming from Great Britain. The article also explains that in response to the judge inquiring of Prokopi if he thought that detail of the country of origin was significant, he replied: “Well, apparently.”

As part of the plea deal, Prokopi is giving up rights to the fossil remains, which include six dinosaurs, with a Tyrannosaurus bataar, Oviraptor, Microraptor, and two Saurolophus among them. According to the BBC, during the Thursday court session, Assistant U.S. Attorney Martin Bell told the judge that the stolen bones are “among the larger dinosaur shopping lists you’ll see today.”

The smuggled bones include a Tyrannosaurus bataar that Prokopi assembled and put up for auction for $1.05 million with Heritage Auctions in May, a sale that was stopped when it was seized by the U.S. officials in June after a claim from Mongolia that they were stolen out of the Gobi desert. That dinosaur is now the subject of a civil case. The skull of a Tyrannosauras bataar was also siezed in Wyoming this summer and was stated by a spokesperson for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations to be related to the Florida case.

The giving up of the dinosaurs is expected to alleviate Prokopi’s sentence, which will be determined in April in federal court. It could come with a maximum of 17 years of prison time and a fine of up to $250,000. The fossils seized from Prokopi will be repatriated to their countries of origin.

Prokopi’s website for his business, called Everything Earth, proclaims: “That’s right, we sell dinosaurs! To whom, you might ask, and we say to anyone that wants one! Our commercial paleontology division finds, trades, and buys fossils from all over the world. We do all the cleaning, preparation, and mounting of our skeletons. You might see some of our projects in museums all over the world, movies, or even in high end auction catalogs including Sotheby’s, Bonhams and Butterfield, IM Chait, and Heritage.”

Robert Painter, who is serving as attorney for the Mongolian President Elbegdorj Tsakhia, told NBC News: “We have looked into this, and we can’t find any instance anywhere when one country has returned to another a lot of dinosaurs this large and this significant that have been looted or smuggled.”

Allison Meier

(Image: Tyrannosaurus bataar, via Times Live: Jordi Payà/Wikimedia Commons)