By Jonathan Stempel
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A Florida man described by federal prosecutors as a "one-man black market in prehistoric fossils" pleaded guilty on Thursday to smuggling dinosaur skeletons into the United States.
Eric Prokopi was accused of importing and selling stolen artifacts including a nearly complete Tyrannosaurus Bataar skeleton and skeletons of a duckbilled Saurolophus Angustirostris from Mongolia and a flying Oviraptor from China, according to the office of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in Manhattan.
The 70-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus Bataar skeleton, a cousin of the Tyrannosaurus Rex, became the subject of an international custody battle when the U.S. government seized it after it was sold in May for $1.05 million in a sale conducted by Heritage Auctions in Manhattan.
The seizure and charges against Prokopi stemmed from Mongolia's claim that the skeleton had been stolen from the Gobi Desert and should be returned. Mongolia is rich in dinosaur fossils and forbids their removal for private gain.
Prokopi, 38, of Gainesville, Florida, pleaded guilty before U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald Ellis in Manhattan to conspiracy, entry of goods by means of false statements, and the interstate and foreign transportation of goods taken by fraud.
He faces up to 10 years in prison on the last and most serious count, as well as possible fines, and is scheduled to be sentenced on April 25. Prokopi also agreed to forfeit several skeletons and other fossils.
Lawyers for Prokopi were not immediately available to comment.
Prokopi was a commercial paleontologist who bought and sold whole and partial fossilized dinosaur skeletons.
Prosecutors said that between 2010 and 2012, he acquired dinosaur fossils from foreign countries and illegally brought them into the United States, misrepresenting the contents of shipments on customs forms.
"Fossils and ancient skeletal remains are part of the fabric of a country's natural history and cultural heritage, and black marketeers like Prokopi who illegally export and sell these wonders, steal a slice of that history," Bharara said in a statement. "We are pleased that we can now begin the process of returning these prehistoric fossils to their countries of origin."
At the time of Prokopi's arrest in October, Bharara said the investigation had "uncovered a one-man black market in prehistoric fossils."
The case is U.S. v. One Tyrannosaurus Bataar Skeleton, a/k/a Lot 49315 Listed on Page 92 of the Heritage Auctions May 20, 2012 Natural History Auction Catalog, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 12-04760.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst)