NEW YORK — A Virginia fossils dealer was sentenced today to three months in prison even after a prosecutor described his cooperation with law enforcement in heroic terms, saying he enabled more than 18 largely complete dinosaur fossils to be located, enough for Mongolia to open its first dinosaur museum.
Eric Prokopi, 39, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein for smuggling a 70-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus skeleton from Mongolia into the United States by making false statements to U.S. officials, including that the then-unassembled bones were merely reptile fossils from Great Britain.
Once assembled, the skeleton was sold by Dallas-based Heritage Auctions for more than $1 million before it was seized by the U.S. government and returned to Mongolia.
Hellerstein also ordered Prokopi to serve three months community confinement and 100 hours of community service.
Hellerstein said Prokopi was to be commended for his cooperation and for working as a commercial paleontologist to enhance the world’s knowledge of the origins of man.
But the judge said Prokopi had “done a bad thing” and needed punishment.
Prokopi apologized and said he hoped to rebuild his business with an emphasis on getting proper documentation for bones he purchases.
“I sincerely love fossils,” said Prokopi, of Williamsburg, Virginia. He was living in Gainesville, Florida, when he was charged with importing multiple shipments of dinosaur bones between 2010 and 2012 that had been stolen from the Gobi Desert region of Mongolia.
Prokopi also said he hoped to repair any damage to the field of paleontology caused by his case.
Defense attorney Georges Lederman had asked the judge to spare Prokopi from prison, citing his cooperation and noting that the charges had led to his divorce, the loss of his home and a stigma that had caused others in his profession to resist working with him.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Martin S. Bell said Prokopi’s knowledge had aided investigations into the dinosaur fossil trade that were continuing in Wyoming, California and New York.
He said his cooperation “has been useful, has been fruitful, has been important.”
In a letter to the judge, the prosecutor “it is safe to say that there is not an active fossil investigation that has not been informed, to some degree, by information given by Prokopi in this case.”
He said Prokopi had met with agents and representatives of the Department of Homeland Security as well as prosecutors in four offices, providing information crucial to law enforcement’s “revitalized efforts to police what had essentially become a black market in stolen national treasuries that operated in plain sight.”
Bell said Prokopi had “developed their knowledge of the players in the trade of not only dinosaur fossils, but other natural treasures.”
As a result of Prokopi’s work, he wrote, Mongolia is opening a museum based on dinosaurs “recovered in this case alone.”