Dinosaur 'thief' pleads guilty to smuggling

A man accused of smuggling 70-million-year-old dinosaur skeletons, including a Tyrannosaur, into the United States pleaded guilty in court Thursday.

Eric Prokopi, 38, who is to be sentenced on April 25, faces up to 17 years in jail and a $250,000 fine on charges of conspiring to smuggle illegal goods, transporting goods taken by fraud and using false statements to import goods.

New York chief federal prosecutor Preet Bharara said "black marketers" who illegally export and sell fossils and ancient skeletons "steal a slice" of history.

Prokopi tried to sell a Tyrannosaurus Bataar -- a toothy relative of the larger Tyrannosaurus Rex -- at auction in New York in May this year, when bids reached $1.05 million.

But Mongolia's government claimed the bones were illegally removed from the Central Asian country and should not be sold. US officials impounded the remains shortly after.

As part of his plea bargain, Prokopi forfeited his rights to the Tyrannosaurus skeleton as well as to a number of others seized by authorities.

Prokopi, who has denied trafficking, spent a year restoring and remounting what had been a loose collection of bones to recreate the skeleton, according to Heritage Auctions, which had attempted to sell the dinosaur on his behalf.

The Florida dealer was also accused of illegally importing from Mongolia a second, nearly complete Tyrannosaurus Bataar skeleton, two Saurolophus skeletons and two Oviraptor skeletons.

He was also accused of smuggling a Microraptor skeleton from China.

One of the Saurolophus skeletons was also sold at an auction, in California, for $75,000 and later confiscated by authorities. The other, along with the Oviraptors, were seized from Prokopi's home.

When he was arrested at his Florida home, a truck arrived carrying some 440 pounds (200 kilograms) of fossils.

Since 1924, Mongolia has banned the export of fossils, which it considers to be national property.

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