Restitution ordered in dinosaur footprint theft

AP News
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Posted: Oct 20, 2014 7:42 PM

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A Utah man who pleaded guilty in the theft of a priceless fossilized dinosaur footprint that's never been recovered was sentenced Monday to a year of probation and ordered to pay $15,000 in restitution.

Jared Ehlers, 35, in February pried a piece of sandstone with an ancient three-toed dinosaur track from a trail for off-road vehicles near Moab in southeastern Utah, federal prosecutors say.

Authorities believe he got nervous after being questioned in the case and dumped the print — thought to be up to 190 million years old — into the Colorado River.

In court Monday, the Moab man told U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball he regretted pulling up the 150-pound piece of sandstone.

"I don't have a lot to say," Ehlers said. "I'm just extremely sorry for a horrible decision that I made."

Ehlers will serve half his sentence under house arrest. He also will have a felony conviction on his record and be barred from possessing guns. That requirement is significant for Ehlers, who enjoys hunting with his two sons, his attorney Tara Isaacson said.

Ehlers, who co-owns a construction company, spotted the print one day while on the Hell's Revenge jeep trail and noticed it was loose. The fossil was in a well-trafficked area, part of a set of prints on that trail that frequently are driven over, Isaacson said.

"He saw the print, and he didn't think it through — how serious it would be to remove this piece of stone from the area," she said.

Ehlers told friends he took the fossil, and authorities questioned him after discovering it was missing, she said.

He eventually acknowledged pulling up the heavy footprint and driving home with it.

Ehlers pleaded guilty in July to one count of removing a paleontological resource. Three other charges of theft and damage to government property were dropped as part of a plea deal.

The restitution will cover the cost of searching for the fossil but not the fossil itself, which is invaluable, Carlie Christensen, acting U.S. attorney for Utah, has said.

The print is from the Jurassic Period and is up to 190 million years old, according to Bureau of Land Management Paleontologist ReBecca Hunt-Foster. It comes from a large meat-eating dinosaur that likely is an ancestor to dinosaurs like the Allosaurus, she said.

The bones of the dinosaur that left the print have never been found, meaning it could be one of thousands of species of dinosaurs that remain undiscovered.

Ehlers is the second person in Utah charged under a 2009 law designed to protect paleontological artifacts. John Faustman Cowan was accused of stealing a dinosaur footprint in 2010, but prosecutors dismissed the charge after he followed terms of a pretrial agreement.