From looking at character references for Eric Prokopi, (40) a University of Florida (1996) graduate with a B.S. in Engineering, he was a dedicated scientist, friend, father and husband … in fact he still is but he is on his way to federal prison.
Last December, Eric Prokopi, a self proclaimed commercial paleontologist, pleaded guilty in December 2012 to illegally importing the fossilized remains of a Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton. It was a case that drew headlines for its seemingly brazen theft of a nearly complete skeleton from a poor country. The 70 million year old fossil FOSL -0.3% was returned to its country of origin, Mongolia, where it had been extracted from the Gobi Desert. Today, Prokiopi was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein in New York to 3 months in federal prison and 3 months of community confinement. Federal prosecutors had sought a prison term of 30-37 months.
Prokopi openly operated Florida Fossils in Gainesville, FL (Go Gators) a company he formed prior to entering college. Beginning in 2010, Prokopi imported three shipping containers of rock containing parts of a Tyrannosaurus from Mongolia, by way of Great Britain, at a cost of $200,000. He restored the prehistoric dinosaur and sold it at Heritage Auctions in New York on May 20, 2012 for $1,052.500 … but the transaction did not go through. The feds grew suspicious and filed a civil in rem complaint on June 18, 2012 seeking the return of the fossil to Mongolia (United States v. One Tyrannosaurus Skeleton, No. 12-Civ-4760 (S.D.N.Y.).
According to Prokopi’s sentencing memorandum, “… at no time did Prokopi believe that it was illegal for a private individual to purchase or own fossils of Mongolian origin. In short, his crimes relate to his failure to comply with export and import regulations …” So how did Prokopi get into this mess?
Around 2000, Prokopi went to the Colorado Mineral and Fossil Show in Denver, CO were he saw Mongolian dinosaur fossils for sale. He made his first purchase of a fossil at the show in September 2006 and, obviously interested in the origins of the fossils, traveled to Mongolia. There he met with an employee of the Mongolian Paleontological Center, which is a government-sponsored entity. Prokopi purchased the required Mongolian permits and, in 2006, purchased and prepped his first fossil of Mongolian origin, a Tyrannosaurus bataar skull, which was purchased at auction by actor Nicholas Cage.
Far from being some high-flying con-man, Prokopi was dedicated to the study of dinosaurs and lived a modest life, sharing his knowledge of dinosaurs. Prokopi, now divorced as a direct result of the pressures of this case, is the father of two school-age children and has fallen on tough times since his arrest. He hardly has any income and his home is now in foreclosure. According to documents filed by Prokopi’s attorney, Georges G. Lederman, “Prokopi remains radioactive in the field of “commercial” paleontology as dealers, auction houses and collectors are loathe to give him projects for fear that the Government will seize their items as well or that he will be incarcerated and unable to work for a period of time.” Currently, Prokopi has turned to more domestic restoration projects by purchasing antiques from estate sales.
Mongolia has made out on this deal but Prokopi is paying the price. Prokopi relinquished all right, title and interest he may have had in the Tyrannosaurus, which was sent back to Mongolia in May 2013. In fact, Prokopi was asked by the feds if he would be willing to help the Mongolian paleontologists who had arrived in New York to receive the fossil to erect the Tyrannosaurus which had been disassembled following its seizure in 2012. He immediately agreed but it was decided to not do any assembly of the fossil prior to shipping. The Mongolian government received a museum quality specimen that sold at auction for over $1 million. It all started out as large chunks of rocks which Prokopi purchased for $30,000 and meticulously restored. Were it not for Prokopi’s efforts, the offending fossil would have been lost in the rocks of the Gobi Desert.
Prokopi is not a con-man, nor is he some dinosaur kook. He is a good man who pursued his passion with everything he had … and clearly he made some mistakes along the way. However, none of coverage of his case has been fair nor has it provided any insights into what actually occurred … sadly that seems to be par for the course. Accounts of this case have been grossly misrepresented, even by Manhattan’s U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara who was quoted in a press release after Prokopi’s guilty plea, “… black marketeers like Prokopi who illegally export and sell these wonders, steal a slice of that [Mongolian] history.” Prokopi was not a “black marketeer,” he was careless on some import documents on a fossil that he paid for in Mongolia … but clearly that can land you prison. Hopefully, he can move on beyond this incident, but it will take a while … maybe not 70 million years, but a while.