A Florida man has been charged with smuggling dinosaur fossils into the U.S., including a nearly complete Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton from Mongolia, federal prosecutors say.
Eric Prokopi, a self-described "commercial paleontologist" who buys and sells whole and partial dinosaur skeletons, was arrested at his home in Gainesville, according to a complaint unsealed by prosecutors. He was charged with smuggling goods into the U.S. and interstate sale and receipt of stolen goods.
He also faces one count of conspiracy to smuggle illegal goods, possession of stolen property and making false statements. If convicted on all charges, he could face up to 35 years in prison.
Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement that the investigation "uncovered a one-man black market in prehistoric fossils." The U.S. government seized the Tyrannosaurus skeleton earlier this year after it was sold by an auction house for $1.05 million.
Prokopi did not immediately respond to a phone call, but his attorney says he did nothing wrong.
Prokopi has been involved in a lawsuit in New York over the auction because the Mongolian government has said it may belong to them. Prokopi's attorney in the lawsuit, Michael McCullough, says his client is entitled to keep the creature he spent a year putting together at great expense.
McCullough says the U.S. government was incorrect when it alleged that the skeleton pieces were brought into the country in one $15,000 shipment. He says there were three other shipments and only 37 percent of the completed skeleton came from one specimen.
Federal prosecutors say Prokopi misrepresented the identity, origin and value of the skeleton of the T. bataar, a dinosaur that lived approximately 70 million years ago.
Prokopi is also accused of illegally importing from Mongolia the skeleton of a Saurolophus, another dinosaur from the late Cretaceous period that he sold to a gallery in California along with fossils of two other dinosaurs native to Mongolia. He also imported the fossilized remains of a Microraptor, a small, flying dinosaur from China, the complaint says.
Prokopi brought the fossils into the country between 2010 and 2012, prosecutors say.