NEW YORK – U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcements (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) special agents arrested Eric Prokopi, 38, of Gainesville, Fla., earlier today pursuant to a federal criminal complaint charging him with multiple crimes relating to a scheme to illegally import dinosaur fossils into the United States, including a nearly complete Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton from Mongolia, a Saurolophus angustirostris skeleton, also from Mongolia, and a Microraptor skeleton from China.
Prokopi was arrested this morning by HSI special agents at his home in Gainesville, Fla., and will be presented at the federal courthouse in Gainesville this afternoon. Prokopi is charged with one count of conspiracy to smuggle illegal goods, possess stolen property and make false statements. If convicted on this charge, he faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison. He is also charged with smuggling goods into the United States, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, and interstate sale and receipt of stolen goods, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.
Prokopis arrest follows an earlier civil suit filed by the U.S. Attorneys Office Southern District of New York (USAO SDNY) seeking forfeiture of the Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton so that it can be returned to Mongolia. That action is pending before U.S. District Judge P. Kevin Castel.
Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara stated, "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. In addition to our commitment to ensuring that these relics are returned to their countries of origin, we are equally committed to shutting down Prokopis illegal business and holding him to account for his alleged crimes."
HSI NY Special Agent in Charge James T. Hayes Jr. said, "The arrest of Eric Prokopi and the recent seizure of the Saurolophus angustirostris fossil sends a clear message that HSI does not tolerate the sale of allegedly stolen cultural artifacts. We want to make this illegal business practice extinct in the U.S. This fossil is a symbol of the rich cultural heritage of the Mongolian people. HSI will preserve the fossil and return it to its rightful owner."
The following allegations are based on the complaint unsealed today in Manhattan federal court, the amended civil forfeiture complaint and statements made in court proceedings:
Prokopi owns and runs a business called "Everything Earth" out of his Florida home and is a self-described "commercial paleontologist." He buys and sells whole and partial fossilized dinosaur skeletons. Between 2010 and 2012, the defendant acquired dinosaur fossils from foreign countries and unlawfully transported them to the United States, misrepresenting the contents of the shipments on customs forms. Many of the fossils in Prokopis possession were indigenous to Mongolia and could only be found in that country. In fact, Mongolian officials have uncovered a witness who accompanied Prokopi to an excavation site in 2009 and observed him physically taking bones out of the ground. Since 1924, Mongolia has enacted laws declaring dinosaur fossils to be the property of the Mongolian government and criminalizing their export from the country.
One of the fossils Prokopi unlawfully imported into the U.S. is the skeleton of the Tyrannosaurus bataar, a dinosaur that lived during the late Cretaceous period, approximately 70 million years ago. When importing this skeleton, Prokopi made a number of misrepresentations about its identity, origin and value. The Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton was sold at an auction in Manhattan for more than $1 million, pending the resolution of court proceedings that were instituted on behalf of the Mongolian government in an effort to reclaim the skeleton prior to the sale, but after the auction materials were published. When he heard about the court proceedings, Prokopi responded by emailing an individual who works for Heritage Auctions – the institution that put the skeleton up for sale – stating, in part, "If (the Mongolian president) only wants to take the skeleton and try to put an end to the black market, he will have a fight and will only drive the black market deeper underground."
Prokopi also illegally imported from Mongolia the skeleton of a Saurolophus angustirostris, another dinosaur from the late Cretaceous period that he ultimately sold to the I.M. Chait gallery in California. In addition, Prokopi unlawfully sold the fossils of two other dinosaurs native to Mongolia, Gallimimus and Oviraptor mongoliensis, and imported the fossilized remains of a Microraptor, a small, flying dinosaur from China.
The investigation is being conducted by HSI New York.
HSI plays a leading role in criminal investigations that involve the illegal importation and distribution of cultural property, as well as the illicit trafficking of artwork. The agency specializes in recovering works that have been reported lost or stolen. The HSI Office of International Affairs, through its 71 attaché offices in 47 countries, works closely with foreign governments to conduct joint investigations, when possible.
HSI specially trained investigators, assigned to both domestic and international offices, partner with governments, agencies and experts to protect cultural antiquities. They also train investigators from other nations and agencies on investigating crimes involving stolen property and art, and how to best enforce the law to recover these items when they emerge in the marketplace.
Since 2007, HSI has repatriated more than 2,500 items to more than 23 countries.
The criminal case is being prosecuted by the USAO SDNYs Complex Frauds Unit. The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Martin S. Bell. The ongoing civil forfeiture case is being handled by the Offices Asset Forfeiture Unit. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Sharon Cohen Levin and Martin S. Bell are in charge of the forfeiture case.
The charges against Prokopi are merely allegations. He is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.