From the Denver Post in the USA:
Dragnet for smuggled dinosaur bones snares Beaver Creek vendor
By Kirk Mitchell
02/03/2014 12:01:00 AM MST
A lawsuit in Denver’s U.S. District Court names a “fossilized Tyrannosaurus bataar skull” as the defendant.
The quirky legal maneuver essentially repatriates the skull — 67 million years after the dinosaur’s demise — as if it were a living, breathing Mongolian citizen. And as though it were on a trek to Noah’s Ark, the giant oval skull with long razor teeth will soon join a world-wide migration of dinosaur bones to a museum across the street from the Genghis Khan statue in the Mongolian capital city of Ulan Bator.
U.S. judges began ordering the return of dinosaur bones to Mongolia after U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials and Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, the president of Mongolia, came to an understanding about how to redress fossil smuggling two years ago, said Houston attorney Robert Painter, who represents Elbegdorj in his quest to repatriate Mongolian dinosaur bones.
The lawsuit against the skull of a T. bataar — a dinosaur cousin of T. rex — came on the heels of a guilty plea in a criminal case against 69-year-old Eagle dinosaur vendor Rick Rolater in Wyoming federal court. Rolater sells rare gems, petrified wood tables and mammoth tusks in his pricy Jackson Hole and Beaver Creek shops, By Nature Gallery.
Over the past 20 years, dinosaur bones stolen from the Gobi Desert‘s Nemegt Basin, sometimes in midnight smuggling raids, eventually found their way to buyers. Wealthy private collectors were willing to pay up to $1 million for a full T. rex skeleton.
The next target for civil litigation could very well be another T. bataar fossil — one bought by “National Treasure” actor Nicolas Cage for $267,000 after he outbid actor Leonardo DiCaprio at a Beverly Hills auction house in 2007. Painter said Mongolia will be contacting Cage seeking the fossil’s provenance within the next few weeks.
Rolater, reached while attending the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show, where museum curators can find dinosaur fossils from around the world for sale, said he could not comment.
His Cheyenne attorney, Pat Crank, said Rolater got caught up in the whirlwind of criminal investigations initiated by federal agents two years ago against dinosaur fossil dealer Eric Prokopi, currently on probation in Florida after smuggling a T. bataar skull from Mongolia. Only then did Rolater realize his fossils may have been smuggled illegally, Crank said.
“Either Mr. Rolater was the stupidest criminal or he believed what he was doing was legal,” Crank said. He noted that before Prokopi’s arrest, Rolater displayed a giant T. bataar skull in the front window of his Jackson Hole gallery.
In fact, Rolater told a reporter in 2007 that his connections to fossil hunters landed him the most prized pieces in the world, including a T. bataar skull he was trying to sell at the time for $425,000.
The trouble, though, was where the bone hunters found their prize specimens. Some of the world’s acclaimed paleontologists describe the Mongolian fossil hunt as being far more nefarious than Rolater describes. Hunters have been known to raid digs by paleontologists and destroy skeletons to get valuable parts of the dinosaurs.
He said since 1924 only two entities in the world have had permits to dig dinosaur bones in Mongolia, including his museum. He said there is a 99 percent chance any T. bataar bones were taken from Mongolia.
Federal agents received a tip in 2012 that Rolater’s Jackson Hole gallery was selling a T. bataar skull for $320,000, which was placed in a residential home after Prokopi’s arrest the same year. Another T. bataar skull was found in a crawl space in Rolater’s home in Eagle as well as foot bones of an ostrich-like dinosaur called Gallimimus. Rolater told agents he had sold six of the skulls the past six years.
Crank says any suggestion his client hid the bones is “total bunk.”
The civil suit filed against Rolater’s T. bataar skull says a 2010 customs declaration in Japan misstated that the fossil’s shipping country was Japan and that the crate it was in contained “archeological, historic pieces” rather than fossils.
Rolater has a plea agreement in which he relinquished dinosaur bones valued at $2.5 million including those from four raptors, three T. bataar skulls and 10 dinosaur eggs. In exchange, the government is recommending he be placed on probation for two years and pay a $25,000 fine, Rolater’s attorney said.
“He’s a convicted felon for the rest of his life,” Crank said. “Mr. Rolater wants to get on with his life.”
Painter said his advice to Cage and other wealthy owners of Mongolian dinosaur fossils is to voluntarily turn them over to Mongolia. In doing so they might avoid federal felony criminal charge, he said.