Eric Prokopi of Gainesville, 38, allegedly stole the skeletal remains of a half dozen dinosaurs including a nearly-complete skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus bataar — a relative of the Tyrannosaurus rex — from other countries by forging customs papers, according to charging documents filed by the Manhattan U.S. attorney’s office.
Prokopi caught the attention of federal officials earlier this year when he sold the Tyrannosaurus fossils to a Manhattan buyer for $1.1 million. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security conducted an investigation into Prokopi’s fossil dealings and uncovered a laundry list of questionable exchanges, which culminated in his arrest on Wednesday.
Prokopi is charged with one count of smuggling goods into the U.S., one count of selling stolen goods and one count of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government. The charges carry a sentence of up to 35 years in prison.
Prokopi smuggled the $1.1 million Tyrannosaurus bataar from Mongolia but claimed on U.S. customs forms that the fossils were ‘broken bones’ belonging to lizards and other reptiles that were imported from the U.K., according to an investigation carried out by Homeland Security special agent Daniel Brazier. Prokopi estimated their value at $15,000.
The Tyrannosaurus bataar, also known as the Tarbosaurus, was native to Mongolia and lived nearly 70 million years ago. Their fossils were first discovered in 1946 during a joint Soviet-Mongolian expedition to the Gobi Desert. Mongolia strictly prohibits the removal of dinosaur fossils from its country.
Other dinosaur skeletons that Prokopi is charged with illegally procuring or selling include a Saurolophus from Mongolia, which he sold to a gallery in California for $75,000, a Microraptor — which is a small flying dinosaur — from China, and a Gallimimus and an Oviraptor from Mongolia.
Robert Painter, a Houston-based lawyer representing the Mongolian government, said that after Prokopi’s arrest, Elbegdorj Ts, President of Mongolia had commended U.S. authorities for their efforts to stop the theft of cultural treasures.