Dinosaur 'thief' arrested in Florida

2012-10-18 14:59
This image shows the fossil of a Tyrannosaurus bataar dinosaur at the centre of a lawsuit demanding its return to Mongolia. (US Attorney Office for the Southern District of New York, AP)

This image shows the fossil of a Tyrannosaurus bataar dinosaur at the centre of a lawsuit demanding its return to Mongolia. (US Attorney Office for the Southern District of New York, AP)

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New York - A US man accused of smuggling 70 million year old dinosaur skeletons into the US, including a toothy relative of the bigger Tyrannosaurus rex, was arrested on Wednesday in Florida, officials said.

Eric Prokopi, 38, was charged with conspiracy to smuggle illegal goods, smuggling into the US, and selling stolen goods, which carry possible sentences of five, 20 and 10 years in prison respectively.

New York chief federal prosecutor Preet Bharara called Prokopi a "one-man black market in prehistoric fossils" and said the earlier seizure of a Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton from the Florida dealer was "merely the tip of the iceberg".

Prokopi tried to sell the Tyrannosaurus bataar at auction in New York in May this year, but Mongolia's government claimed the bones were illegally removed from the Central Asian country and could not be sold. US authorities impounded the remains shortly after.

Prokopi, who has denied trafficking, spent a year restoring and remounting what had been a loose collection of bones to recreate the skeleton, said Heritage Auctions, which attempted to sell the dinosaur on his behalf.

The Florida dealer is also accused of illegally importing a Saurolophus angustirostris skeleton from Mongolia and a Microraptor skeleton from China.

He was expected to appear before a federal court in Gainesville, Florida, and also in New York federal court on 22 October, Bharara said.

Bharara told the presiding Florida judge that strict conditions should be put on Prokopi's bail, because "the allegations against the defendant are unusual".

"Among other things, the Complaint sets forth a pattern of frequent international travel and manipulation of United States customs forms."

"Overall, there is a significant risk of flight," Bharara concluded.

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