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Feds Nab Illegal Tyrannosaurus Rex Skull

April 26, 2016

Michael Daly

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara is best known to New Yorkers for busting corrupt pols and Wall Street crooks, but to Mongolians he’s famous for returning dinosaurs—and he’s got another one.

The civil complaint was filed thusly in Manhattan federal court:




The dinosaur in question is described as “a native of Mongolia… from the late Cretaceous period, approximately 70 million years ago.” Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara filed this 2012 case seeking to have its fossilized remains returned to its native land, where it had been excavated in the Gobi Desert before being smuggled to England, then on to America and a self-described “commercial paleontologist.”

The paleontologist, Eric Prokopi of Florida, was charged with smuggling in a related case that same year. Manhattan federal Judge Alvin Hellerstein posed a question at an early hearing.

“Any idea how big this dinosaur is fully assembled?” he asked.

“It is about 24 or so feet in length and stands about eight feet high,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Martin Bell replied.

“So, it would fit nicely in my courtroom,” the judge said.

“You could probably fit a couple of them in the jury box, your honor,” Bell said.

“I don’t think we’ll have the dinosaur in the jury box,” the judge said. “But we might have it in the courtroom.”

That proved unnecessary when Prokopi pleaded guilty to smuggling numerous fossils from Mongolia. He became what Bharara’s office described in court papers as “to put it mildly, a unique and important cooperating witness in the annals of national resource crime.”

“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,” court papers say.

Bharara is best known in New York for historic prosecutions of crooked political dinosaurs such as state Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver and state Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. Bharara is renowned in Mongolia for returning actual prehistoric dinosaurs.

The full Tyrannosaurus Bataar skeleton named in the original civil complaint filed in conjunction with the criminal case was officially returned to Mongolian authorities during a formal ceremony in May 2013. Another 18 fossilized remains were returned the following year.

“This is a historic event for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, in addition to being a prehistoric event,” Bharara said.

As listed by the Bharara’s office, the fossils returned in 2014 included:

- Two additional Tyrannosaurus Bataar skeletons;

- A skeleton of a Saurolophus angustirostris, a duckbilled, plant-eating dinosaur, and a partial skeleton of an additional Saurolophus;

- Two freestanding Oviraptors, dinosaurs known (perhaps apocryphally) for eating the eggs of other dinosaurs;

- A rock matrix containing at least four Oviraptors;

- A rock slab containing two Gallimimus skeletons, which were large, ostrich-like dinosaurs;

- Two additional Gallimimus skeletons;

- The partial skeleton of an Ankylosaurus, a dinosaur known for having a heavily armored body and a bony, club-like tail;

- The skeleton of a Protoceratops, a dinosaur about the size of a large dog with a distinctive neck frill;

- One restored composite “egg nest” display piece made of composite dinosaur egg fossils;

- Several small, unidentified prehistoric lizards and turtles; and

- Numerous partial skeletons.

Bharara’s office noted in a court filing that “these specimens are quite literally of sufficient number to open a museum, and Mongolia is in the process of operating its first-ever such institution based on the dinosaurs recovered in this case alone.”

Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj offered his nation’s gratitude.

“Our two countries are separated by many miles but share a passion for justice and a commitment to putting an end to illegal smuggling,” he said.

At Prokopi’s sentencing in 2014, the assistant prosecutor, Bell, remarked on the recovered Oviraptors.

“I think a number of them stampeded in the 1996 movie Jurassic Park,” Bell said. “I was young and awestruck in any event, your honor.”

“I missed the movie,” the judge said. “Maybe I should go back to see it.”

“Every now and then it airs on TNT,” Bell said. “I will stop what I am doing, particularly now, your honor.”

Prokopi, in recognition for his cooperation, was sentenced to just six months, only three behind bars. His insights continued to guide investigators, who recovered yet another fossil in recent days.

On Wednesday, Bharara announced that his office was returning the latest recovery to Mongolia.

“We are gratified to add the skull of another Tyrannosaurus Bataar to the roster of fossils returned to Mongolia,” he said.

Here was another moment of the right thing done just right, one that offered a too brief mental escape from this tumultuous time of Hillary and Bernie and The Donald and Terrible Ted and, oh yeah, of Kasich.

Then, this New York prosecutor’s prehistoric work done at least until the next fossil is found, Bharara returned to his historic fight against crooks who masquerade as public servants.

He is said to be investigating allegations of corruption in the NYPD, as well as questions regarding Mayor Bill de Blasio’s fundraising and suggestions of political favoritism at City Hall.

However it goes in New York, Bharara will still be best known in Mongolia not for United States of America v. Sheldon Silver or for United States of America v. Dean Skelos or Whoever is Next, but for United States of America v. One Tyrannosaurus Bataar Skeleton.



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