Illegal Immigrant? Manhattan U.S. Attorney to Deport Dinosaur To Mongolia
Consider the case of Lenny. He’s imposing, striking. He has a big grin and shows a lot of nasty-looking teeth. He’s a real “go getter” – according to anyone who’s heard of him.
Lenny is also in this country illegally. And he’s 70 million years old.
Preet Bharara, Manhattan U.S. Attorney, announced the intended return of Lenny, an intact dinosaur skeleton, to his native Mongolia. (Affectionately dubbed “Lenny” by paleontologists, the fossilized dinosaur skeleton is of a 8′ tall, 25′ long Asian Tarbosaurus Bataar – not his big brother, the better-known, more imposing T-Rex.)
But Lenny didn’t climb a fence or stow away to enter the U.S. No, instead, he was a victim of an alleged on-going scheme to illegally import himself and other fossilized skeletons into the U.S. The Complaint, unsealed in October 2012 in the Southern District of New York, charged Eric Prokopi with multiple crimes including
- conspiracy to smuggle illegal goods, possess stolen property, and make false statements (a maximum sentence of 5 years in prison)
- smuggling goods into the U.S. (a maximum sentence of 20 years)
- interstate sale and receipt of stolen goods (a maximum sentence of 10 years)
According to federal prosecutors, Prokopi, who describes himself as a “commercial paleontologist,” owns and operates “Everything Earth,” a dinosaur skeleton business he runs out of his Florida home.
Allegedly, Prokopi illegally bought and sold several dinosaur skeletons, including Lenny, between 2010 and 2012. The underground network sourced fossils primarily from Mongolia (along with Microraptors from China – remember the speedy raptors in “Jurassic Park”?), moved them to other foreign countries (frequently Great Britain), and then, using misleading or false paperwork, brought them into the U.S. for auction or outright sale
Mr. Prokopi’s criminal defense attorney Georges Lederman offered several Answers to the Complaint, including mistaken or confused paperwork abroad and possible collusion to defame him (by unidentified parties). The defense has asserted Mr. Prokopi is in fact a hard-working, honest man who made an honest mistake and was completely ignorant of the seized fossil’s true ownership and origin.
But in a plea deal on December 27, 2012 Prokopi pleaded guilty to criminal charges related to smuggling fossils and agreed to forfeit a small menagerie of dinosaurs to federal officials. He pleaded guilty to three felony counts and agreed to give up his claim on Lenny, plus fossils from two other Tarbosaurus Bataars, one Saurolophus or duck-billed dinosaur, and two birdlike Oviraptors. The charges include smuggling, making false statements on customs forms, and dealing in fossils he knew to be illegal.
Prokopi faces a maximum of 17 years in prison and a substantial fine. However, his defense attorney Georges Lederman says it is highly unlikely Prokopi will receive anything close to the maximum sentence since Prokopi has cooperated with investigators and, as part of his plea deal, will continue to do so. “We are confident that the sentence imposed will be a fair and reasonable one and will take into account all the proactive measures my client has made,” Lederman said.
Importantly, this conviction should alert the legal community, and anybody in the collecting community, that Mongolian law served as the foundation to bring the U.S. National Stolen Property Act to bear. While Federal prosecutors were basing the claim, that the fossils were stolen, on Mongolian law, Prokopi was being prosecuted under U.S. law. He pleaded guilty to one count of violating this law. The legal implications have yet to be ironed out – the relationship between a foreign country’s cultural/historical law and U.S. law.
Mr. Bharara stated “The skeletal remains [of Lenny] . . . are of tremendous cultural and historic significance to the people of Mongolia. When that skeleton was allegedly looted, a piece of [Mongolia’s] natural history was stolen.”
“We can’t find any instance anywhere when one country has returned to another a [group] of dinosaurs this large and this significant that have been looted or smuggled,” said Robert Painter, attorney for Mongolian President Elbegdorj Tsakhia. Lenny’s saga has captured Mongolians’ attention. A Mongolian media company, Shuud.mn, has named the dinosaur’s story the top event of the year.
70 million year-old Lenny – nor his present attorney – was not immediately available for comment. At the present time he is staying at the Cadogan Fine Arts (Museum) in Sunnyside, NY.
After all the attention here, it is possible Lenny is miffed – that he is considered a “lesser” Tyrannosaurus (a/k/a Tarbosaurus). One wonders if perhaps this will affect his accommodations going home.
— Stephen Heath-Jones