Dinosaur fossils smuggler turned informant gets short prison sentence

Dinosaur smuggler helps feds uncover more smuggling operations

A dinosaur smuggler turned informant will spend only a few weeks in prison, about two years after Mongolian authorities realized Tyrannosaurus fossils had been pilfered from the Gobi Desert.

Eric Prokopi, 39, pleaded guilty last year to three counts related to the smuggling of dinosaur fossils into the U.S. His biggest find was a 2-ton Tyrannosaurus bataar, about 8 feet tall, 24 feet long and 70 million years old. Prokopi enlisted a New York auction house to put the dinosaur up for bid, but the quirky offering caught the eye of paleontologists, including an advisor to the Mongolian president. 

The fossils had a grayish-sand hue, which indicated they could have come only from Mongolia. Officials there worked with U.S. authorities to halt the million-dollar sale and prosecute Prokopi. Mongolian authorities even uncovered photos of Prokopi working at an excavation site in the Gobi Desert.

But prosecutors eventually requested leniency for him because he shared details about the fossil smuggling world that helped them recover several other items, according to court files. Every fossil-smuggling investigation since Prokopi's arrest has been made possible in part by information he provided, prosecutors said.

Prokopi had faced up to 17 years in prison, but a federal judge on Tuesday sentenced him to three months in prison and about a year of probation.

Still, Prokopi had sought to avoid prison altogether because his reputation as a professional fossils dealer already has been tarnished, according to his attorney. He must turn himself in by September.

Prosecutors said Mongolia plans to open a natural history museum, beginning with the fossils recovered from the Prokopi case.

Times staff writer Joseph Serna contributed to this report.


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