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Dino fossil dealer accused of black-market connections

Image: Tyrannosaurus bataar
An eight-foot tall, 24-foot long Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton is seen in this photo from Heritage Auctions.Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

A judge released a Florida man charged with smuggling dinosaur fossils into the U.S. from home detention Monday even after a prosecutor argued for tougher bail conditions.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Martin S. Bell told U.S. Magistrate Judge Henry Pitman that the suspect could flee because he has access to dinosaur parts that could be sold for more than a half-million dollars. Bell said the 38-year-old fossil dealer, Eric Prokopi, might go abroad with the proceeds.

But Pitman at times seemed unimpressed by the prosecutor's pleas to raise Prokopi's bail from $100,000 to $600,000. The federal judge did raise bail to $250,000, but he lifted a Florida judge's requirement that he be confined to his Gainesville, Fla., home.

Prokopi, a fossil dealer who has been free on bail since his arrest last Wednesday, is the owner of a 70 million-year-old Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton, known as Ty, that was seized by the government in June in a civil forfeiture action. The government accused Prokopi of smuggling the bones into the country illegally from Mongolia before assembling them into a skeleton that was sold by Dallas-based auction house Heritage Auctions for $1.05 million.

"Is there a veritable crime wave of dinosaur bones being sold to the public?" Pitman asked Bell. The prosecutor responded that the level of sales "far exceeds" the effort by law enforcement authorities to stop them.

The lack of law enforcement, he said, explains why some fossils produced through a black market in stolen relics can be sold at public auctions.

"There's a real possibility what essentially is a black market can hide in clear sight," Bell said.

Prokopi's lawyer, Georges G. Lederman, told Pitman that publicity about his client's case had ruined his business. "The notion that anybody would buy dinosaur fossils from my client is absurd," he said. "My client is radioactive when it comes to trying to earn a living in his business."

Bell, though, said a 400-pound box of dinosaur bones was delivered to Prokopi's home even as the government was searching his residence last week. The prosecutor said the government also believed Prokopi was trying to move a Tyrannosaurus skeleton stolen from Mongolia to Denver for its eventual auction through a California gallery.

"He's a participant in the black market," Bell said.

In court papers, the government has accused Prokopi of manipulating U.S. customs forms to smuggle dinosaur skeletons. It also said he has been photographed by a witness in Mongolia and that he has made frequent trips there, including this year.

Lederman said the dinosaur bones delivered to Prokopi's home during the government search belonged to another fossil dealer who wanted Prokopi to restore them.

Lederman said outside court that it was possible the government brought criminal charges to try to end Prokopi's challenge to the government's plan to ship the skeleton to Mongolia.

"The timing is interesting," he said. "There's been a lot of litigating on the forfeiture action which would suggest the timing of the criminal complaint might be used as leverage."

He added: "The government's case is suspect. There's very little law precedent here and I think we will prevail at the end of the day."

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