Florida man pleads guilty to smuggling dinosaur bones

NEW YORK, Dec 27 (Reuters) - A Florida man described by

federal prosecutors as a "one-man black market in prehistoric

fossils" pleaded guilty on Thursday to smuggling dinosaur

skeletons into the United States.

Eric Prokopi was accused of importing and selling stolen

artifacts including a nearly complete Tyrannosaurus Bataar

skeleton and skeletons of a duckbilled Saurolophus

Angustirostris from Mongolia and a flying Oviraptor from China,

according to the office of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in

Manhattan.

The 70-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus Bataar skeleton, a

cousin of the Tyrannosaurus Rex, became the subject of an

international custody battle when the U.S. government seized it

after it was sold in May for $1.05 million in a sale conducted

by Heritage Auctions in Manhattan.

The seizure and charges against Prokopi stemmed from

Mongolia's claim that the skeleton had been stolen from the Gobi

Desert and should be returned. Mongolia is rich in dinosaur

fossils and forbids their removal for private gain.

Prokopi, 38, of Gainesville, Florida, pleaded guilty before

U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald Ellis in Manhattan to conspiracy,

entry of goods by means of false statements, and the interstate

and foreign transportation of goods taken by fraud.

He faces up to 10 years in prison on the last and most

serious count, as well as possible fines, and is scheduled to be

sentenced on April 25. Prokopi also agreed to forfeit several

skeletons and other fossils.

Lawyers for Prokopi were not immediately available to

comment.

Prokopi was a commercial paleontologist who bought and sold

whole and partial fossilized dinosaur skeletons.

Prosecutors said that between 2010 and 2012, he acquired

dinosaur fossils from foreign countries and illegally brought

them into the United States, misrepresenting the contents of

shipments on customs forms.

"Fossils and ancient skeletal remains are part of the fabric

of a country's natural history and cultural heritage, and black

marketeers like Prokopi who illegally export and sell these

wonders, steal a slice of that history," Bharara said in a

statement. "We are pleased that we can now begin the process of

returning these prehistoric fossils to their countries of

origin."

At the time of Prokopi's arrest in October, Bharara said the

investigation had "uncovered a one-man black market in

prehistoric fossils."

The case is U.S. v. One Tyrannosaurus Bataar Skeleton, a/k/a

Lot 49315 Listed on Page 92 of the Heritage Auctions May 20,

2012 Natural History Auction Catalog, U.S. District Court,

Southern District of New York, No. 12-04760.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst)

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