A Florida man was arrested and charged with smuggling valuable dinosaur fossils from Mongolia and China, federal prosecutors said.
Eric Prokopi, 38, was arrested by federal agents Wednesday at his home in Gainesville on one count of conspiracy to smuggle illegal goods, possess stolen property, and make false statements, smuggling goods into the United States and interstate sale and receipt of stolen goods, according to the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.
Prosecutors say Prokopi, a self-described "commercial paleontologist" who buys and sells whole and partial fossilized dinosaur skeletons out of his home through a business called Everything Earth, was part of a scheme to illegally import dinosaur fossils into the U.S.
Prokopi's attorney has said he did nothing wrong.
The dinosaur fossils include a nearly complete Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton and Saurolophus angustirostris skeleton, both from Mongolia, and a Microraptor skeleton from China, prosecutors said.
According to prosecutors, between 2010 and 2012, Prokopi unlawfully transported the dinosaur fossils from foreign countries to the U.S. by misrepresenting the contents of the shipments on customs forms.
Many of the fossils found in Prokopi's possession were indigenous to Mongolia, which enacted laws in 1924 declaring dinosaur fossils the property of the government and criminalizing their export, prosecutors said.
Mongolian officials found a witness who said he accompanied Prokopi to an excavation site in 2009 and saw him take bones out of the ground, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors say that when Prokopi imported the Tyrannosaurus skeleton into the U.S., he made a number of misrepresentations about its identity, origin and value.
The skeleton of the Tyrannosaurus, which lived approximately 70 million years ago, was sold at auction in Manhattan for over $1 million. The Saurolophus was sold to the I.M. Chait gallery in California, prosecutors said.
A civil suit has been filed to have the Tyrannosaurus returned to Mongolia, prosecutors said.
Prokopi's attorney in the lawsuit, Michael McCullough, has said his client is entitled to keep the creature he spent a year putting together at great expense.
"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."