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A Utah man accused of stealing an ancient dinosaur footprint — from the ground — faces up to 45 years in prison if convicted.
A federal grand jury on Wednesday returned a four-count indictment charging Jared Ehlers, of Moab, with "violations of federal law in connection with the excavation and removal of a three-toed dinosaur track from the Hell’s Revenge area of the Sand Flats recreation," the U.S. Attorney's Office in Utah announced.
Authorities believe Ehlers, owner of Ehlers Construction, pried a three-toed fossilized Allosaurus footprint from the ground on Feb. 17 in Canyon County, Utah.
According NBC affiliate KSL, the fossil was later dumped into the Colorado River, about 30 miles east of Moab. Utah officials sent a dive team to search for the fossil, but no evidence has yet been recovered.
The Paleontological Resources Preservation Act, which became law in 2009, protects dinosaur tracks and prehistoric fossils from vandalism and theft. Violators face criminal and civil penalties, including fines and possible jail time.
Ehlers, 35, faces one count each of theft, depredation, removal, and destruction of government property.
The most serious count, destruction of evidence, carries a potential penalty of 20 years in prison. The others have penalties of five or ten years.
Utah Bureau of Land Management paleontologist Rebecca Hunt-Foster said the dinosaur tracks are 190 million years old, according to The Associated Press. She says they are one-of-a-kind tracks that don't have a price.
Authorities did not provide any potential motive for the alleged theft. Ehlers was unavailable for comment. He will be served a summons to appear in federal court, prosecutors said.
— Mel Bailey