Paleontologist may lose freedom for living his dream

This Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton is at the center of a dispute between paleontologist Eric Prokopi, the Department of Homeland Security and the Mongolian government.
This Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton is at the center of a dispute between paleontologist Eric Prokopi, the Department of Homeland Security and the Mongolian government.
Published Dec. 30, 2012

They seemed made for each other, the boy and his hobby.

He was a loner in those days. Shy, but highly intelligent and extremely motivated.

A 10-year-old happy to spend a day beneath a merciless sun while digging for fossils. Other hobbyists seemed to enjoy the camaraderie. The boy was in it for the hunt.

This is where our story begins, with a youngster from Pasco County who dreamed of dinosaurs, discoveries and adventures.

The plot has since crossed decades and borders with stops in museums and auction houses before finally reaching a federal courthouse in New York on Thursday afternoon.

And that is where Eric Prokopi pleaded guilty to fulfilling his dream.

"This is crazy. He was doing what he loved,'' his mother, Doris Prokopi, said Friday from her Land O'Lakes home. "That's what he told them when he was arrested. That this was like arresting Indiana Jones. He collects these bones and puts them all together.

"This was always his dream. I don't think he wanted to do anything else.''

The question now is how should we interpret all of this? Is Prokopi a comic book hero or a black market mastermind? A scientist or a profiteer?

To be fair, the answer is probably all of the above.

Officially, Prokopi, 38, admitted making false statements to customs officials and illegally transporting dinosaur bones from Mongolia to his Gainesville home. As part of his plea agreement, he has surrendered a dinosaur collection potentially worth millions.

The obvious hope is that the forfeiture of bones will translate into leniency in April when a judge hands down a sentence that could be as extreme as 17 years.

That's another world for a kid who was once a one-man swim team at Land O'Lakes High. He had no teammates, no coach, no school logo on his warm-ups, yet Prokopi was the only swimmer from Pasco County to qualify for the state meet in 1990. It was typical of Prokopi's devotion. His lofty goals. His willingness to travel alone.

"We belonged to all the fossil clubs around here, but even when he was little he would go off on his own to dig his holes,'' his mother said. "I think he got teased a lot by the kids at school because he was so quiet and shy and was such a good student.''

Prokopi became interested in paleontology after hanging out at a local dive shop and learning about fossils to be found in mines and caves and at the bottom of Florida rivers.

Soon he was dragging his father, a teacher at Citrus Park Elementary in Tampa for more than 20 years, and his mother around the state for fossil hunts.

He would go on to study engineering at the University of Florida, but seemed destined for a career in artifacts. Along with his wife, Amanda, a one-time dolphin trainer at Discovery Cove in Orlando, he started a business ( that ranges from jewelry and shells to fossils and skeletons.

"That's right,'' his website reads, "we sell dinosaurs!''

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His success in tracking down bones from the Gobi Desert in Mongolia turned out to be his greatest feat, and his ultimate undoing. Over a couple of years, Prokopi was able to virtually restore a Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton.

Trying to capitalize on his discovery, Prokopi advertised the piece with a New York auction house and eventually settled on a selling price of a little more than $1 million.

Meanwhile, a paleontologist with the American Museum of Natural History took note of the sale and alerted officials that the specimen undoubtedly came from Mongolia and that laws there prevent any type of historical artifacts to be removed from the country.

Soon, the Mongolian government and Homeland Security were involved and Prokopi's house was searched and his specimens and computers were confiscated.

Email evidence eventually indicated that Prokopi purposefully mislabeled and undervalued the specimens he was shipping from Mongolia.

Prokopi's initial argument was that he collected a bunch of rocks and bones and did all of the work that turned them into a valuable discovery.

"The thing that hurt Prokopi is a Tyrannosaurus is like the Holy Grail of discoveries,'' said David Letasi, a retired paleontologist in Hernando County who is an acquaintance of Prokopi's. "This whole thing has become a very sensitive political issue.

"You've got the Chinese government, the State Department, the Museum of Natural History and Prokopi all with a vested interest in this thing.''

The end result is the world has a historically significant discovery, the Mongolian government has a museum piece worth a bundle and Prokopi has a possible prison sentence in his future.

Is that justice?

I suppose that depends on your point of view. There seems to be little doubt that Prokopi did marvelous work, but also that he purposefully skirted laws along the way.

The bottom line is everybody wins except for the one man who had the foresight to look ahead and, in the process, discovered the past.

"It's a delicate balance in paleontology,'' said Dr. Peter Harries of the University of South Florida's geology department. "You need people out there looking for things because they may eventually be ruined by erosion. And there is a long history of amateurs being involved in the discovery of these bones. But once profit becomes the dominant motive it can change things.

"I don't think Indiana Jones wanted to sell the Ark of the Covenant for $1 million.''