Sunday, June 15, 2014

A bone to pick with a smuggler

It takes some chutzpah to lie to the U.S. government and then claim that your misdeeds were a service to humanity.

And, no, we’re not talking about Edward Snowden.

Instead, that’s the tack taken by a Virginia fossils dealer accused of smuggling dinosaur bones.

What’s more, the prosecutor agreed, telling a judge that 39-year-old Eric Prokopi not only had cooperated extensively with authorities after his arrest, but also that his efforts had resulted in Mongolia being able to establish its first dinosaur museum.

Mr. Prokopi was living in Florida when he was charged with importing stolen dinosaur bones from Mongolia’s Gobi Desert in multiple shipments between 2010 and 2012.

He told officials that the fossils were just reptile bones from Great Britain.

Uh…no. Among them were the bones of a 70-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus.

But after he was apprehended, Mr. Prokopi assisted investigators looking into an extensive international black market not only in fossils but all sorts of other treasures, as well.

What’s more, the fossils acquired by Mr. Prokopi allowed Mongolia to open a dinosaur museum once they were returned to that nation.

The Tyrannosaurus had been assembled and sold at auction for more than $1 million before being seized by U.S. officials and returned to Mongolia. Ultimately, Mr. Prokopi had located 18 largely complete sets of dinosaur fossils, plenty for the museum.

Despite a prosecutor’s letter detailing the ultimately positive results from Mr. Prokopi’s misdeeds, a judge said he had "done a bad thing" and deserved punishment.

He was sentenced to three months in prison, three additional months of community confinement and 100 hours of community service.

He says he hopes to rebuild his reputation and continue his work as a professional paleontologist — this time, with more attention to the provenance of the bones he buys.

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