Florida Man Charged With Illegally Importing Dinosaur Fossils
GAINESVILLE, Florida -- Preet Bharara, United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and James T. Hayes, Jr., the Special Agent-in-Charge of the New York Field Office of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (“ICE”) Homeland Security Investigations (“HSI”), announced today the unsealing of a Complaint charging ERIC PROKOPI with multiple crimes relating to a scheme to illegally import dinosaur fossils into the United States, including a nearly complete Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton from Mongolia, a Saurolophus angustirostris skeleton, also from Mongolia, and a Microraptor skeleton from China. PROKOPI was arrested this morning by federal agents at his home in Gainesville, Florida, and will be presented at the federal courthouse in Gainesville this afternoon. PROKOPI’s arrest follows an earlier civil suit filed by this Office seeking forfeiture of the Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton so that it can be returned to Mongolia. That action is pending before U.S. District Judge P. Kevin Castel.
Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara stated: “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. 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.”
ICE HSI Special Agent-in-Charge James T. Hayes said: “The arrest of Eric Prokopi and the recent seizure of the Saurolophus angustirostris fossil sends a clear message that HSI does not tolerate the sale of allegedly stolen cultural artifacts. We want to make this illegal business practice extinct in the U.S. This fossil is a symbol of the rich cultural heritage of the Mongolian people. HSI will preserve the fossil and return it to its rightful owner.”
The following allegations are based on the Complaint unsealed today in Manhattan federal court, the Amended Civil Forfeiture Complaint, and statements made in court proceedings:
PROKOPI owns and runs a business called “Everything Earth” out of his Florida home and is a self-described “commercial paleontologist.” He buys and sells whole and partial fossilized dinosaur skeletons.
Between 2010 and 2012, the defendant acquired dinosaur fossils from foreign countries and unlawfully transported them to the United States, misrepresenting the contents of the shipments on customs forms. Many of the fossils in Prokopi’s possession were indigenous to Mongolia and could only be found in that country. In fact, Mongolian officials have uncovered a witness who accompanied Prokopi to an excavation site in 2009 and observed him physically taking bones out of the ground. Since 1924, Mongolia has enacted laws declaring dinosaur fossils to be the property of the Government of Mongolia and criminalizing their export from the country.
One of the fossils PROKOPI unlawfully imported into the U.S. is the skeleton of the Tyrannosaurus bataar, a dinosaur that lived during the late Cretaceous period, approximately 70 million years ago. When importing this skeleton, PROKOPI made a number of misrepresentations about its identity, origin, and value. The Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton was sold at auction in Manhattan for over $1 million, pending the resolution of court proceedings that were instituted on behalf of the Mongolian Government in an effort to reclaim the skeleton prior to the sale, but after the auction materials were published. When he heard about the court proceedings, Prokopi responded by emailing an individual who works for Heritage Auctions – the institution that put the skeleton up for sale – 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.”
PROKOPI also illegally imported from Mongolia the skeleton of a Saurolophus, another dinosaur from the late Cretaceous period that he ultimately sold to the I.M. Chait gallery in California. In addition, PROKOPI unlawfully sold the fossils of two other dinosaurs native to Mongolia, Gallimimus and Oviraptor mongoliensis, and imported the fossilized remains of a Microraptor, a small, flying dinosaur from China.
PROKOPI, 38, of Gainesville, Florida, is charged with one count of conspiracy to smuggle illegal goods, possess stolen property, and make false statements, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison. He is also charged with smuggling goods into the United States, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, and interstate sale and receipt of stolen goods, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.
Mr. Bharara praised the investigative efforts of ICE HSI.
The criminal case is being prosecuted by the Office’s Complex Frauds Unit. Assistant United States Attorney Martin S. Bell is in charge of the prosecution. The ongoing civil forfeiture case is being handled by the Office’s Asset Forfeiture Unit. Assistant United States Attorneys Sharon Cohen Levin and Martin S. Bell are in charge of the forfeiture case.
The charges against PROKOPI are merely allegations. He is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.