By Kevin Krause
The Tyrannosaurus Bataar skulls were dug out of the Gobi desert and illegally smuggled out of Mongolia, federal officials say.
From there, they wound up in the hands of US private collectors who dished out six figures for the fossils, including a Hollywood actor, a New York developer and a North Texas anaesthesiologist.
Since federal authorities began a crackdown in 2012 on the little-known black market in dinosaur bones, more than 18 specimens were returned to Mongolia. Two men were convicted in federal court of smuggling fossils into the US.
Actor Nicholas Cage was among those who agreed to part with their bataar skulls.
But not the Texas doctor.
Dr James Godwin, a Wichita Falls anaesthesiologist, plans to fight for his seized bataar skull, which his attorney says he bought from a business partner several years ago. Michael Villa Jr. told The Dallas Morning News his client will contest the US attorney’s forfeiture lawsuit, filed this month in Dallas, because he bought the skull legally in the US.
“We believe we were an innocent purchaser,” Villa said.
Federal agents seized the bataar skull from Godwin’s North Texas home in 2013.
The dispute sets the stage for an international custody battle that could provide a rare look into dinosaur fossil smuggling networks.
The Dallas legal battle also is likely to reignite simmering tensions between fossil dealers and palaeontologists. The scientists argue that fossils sold to private collectors without corresponding data lose their scientific value. But amateur excavators and those who profit from the fossil market say the treasures would remain hidden in the Earth without their work.
The Gobi Desert is fertile ground for dinosaur fossils such as the Tyrannosaurus Baatar, an Asian relative of Tyrannosaurus Rex that roamed the Earth about 65 million years ago during the Cretaceous period.
Bataar fossils were first unearthed in that part of Mongolia during a 1946 expedition, according to the Dallas forfeiture lawsuit. The fossils aren’t known to be found elsewhere in the world, experts say.
In Mongolia, which is nestled between China and Russia, dinosaur fossils are the property of the government even if they’re excavated from private land, the forfeiture lawsuit says.
Villa said the forfeiture action means that someone can buy an antiquity from a US store and years later be told they have to relinquish it because of some foreign law.
“It’s a due process issue,” he said.
Villa also said US government officials have not proven that the seized baatar skull actually originated in Mongolia. And he questioned why they filed the forfeiture action four years after seizing it.
Villa added that there is case law favourable to his client that involved other antiquities imported into the US. “Just because you claim it’s contraband is not enough,” he said.
But Robert Painter, a Houston lawyer who represents Mongolia, said US authorities have plenty of evidence from the two criminal prosecutions and multiple federal forfeiture judgements involving similar fossils. Federal judges in those cases, he said, were “satisfied that the government met the burden of proof.”
“I am very surprised that they would contest it,” he said about the Texas case. “I would expect that this would be a very uphill – perhaps a vertical uphill battle – for the anaesthesiologist.”
Painter said “we can have sympathy for someone” who buys a foreign artefact without knowing the law. But such a buyer, he added, should always look into whether it’s legal to own.
In 2012, the black market in purloined dinosaur fossils was active in the US and “operating in plain sight,” a government prosecutor wrote.
The investigation led federal agents to a Florida man, Eric Prokopi, who called himself a “commercial palaeontologist.” Prokopi, 42, is not a scientist but he painstakingly prepared and assembled dinosaur skeletons in his backyard.
In June 2012, federal prosecutors in New York filed a forfeiture lawsuit to recover a nearly complete Tyrannosaurus Bataar skeleton belonging to Prokopi that a Dallas-based auctioneer sold for more than $1 million.
Prokopi, who imported the bones via Great Britain and mounted the skeleton, initially fought the case, generating much publicity.
But when he decided to plead guilty to federal smuggling charges, it was the break agents needed. Prokopi led them to other Tyrannosaurus Bataar fossils, court records say.
One of them was a Colorado man who had displayed his specimen in his Wyoming store.
Rick Rolater owned two By Nature Gallery stores – one in Wyoming and one in Colorado. Rolater, 72, was at the time the largest US seller of “high-end Mongolian and Chinese fossils,” prosecutors said.
Agents had learned about Rolater from a caller to a Homeland Security Investigations hotline who in June 2012 reported seeing a bataar skull for sale in his Wyoming store for $320,000.
But Rolater had his gallery director pull the skull from the store and hide it after both saw news reports of the New York seizure, authorities said.
Rolater tried to hide his dinosaur fossils from agents, who eventually seized them from a Wyoming property he rented as well as from a crawl space in his Colorado home, the forfeiture suit said.
Rolater told agents that months earlier he had “transferred” a different bataar skull to Godwin, who owned about a third of the By Nature stores. Rolater said it was not a normal retail sale, according to the forfeiture suit.
Rolater pleaded guilty to smuggling charges after agents found emails on his computer from his Chinese supplier, describing how he would sidestep US customs and import regulations, court records show.
He received probation in March 2014. When reached, Rolater declined to comment due to “ongoing litigation in which I might be a witness.”
Four months later, Prokopi was sentenced to three months in federal prison. – TNS
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