CHEYENNE, Wyoming (AP) — A U.S. man must serve two years of supervised probation on a federal felony conviction of conspiring to smuggle fossils from China into the United States, a federal judge ordered Tuesday.
The judge also sentenced Rick Rolater, 69 to pay a $25,000 fine.
Rolater had sold fossils through two By Nature Gallery stores, one in Jackson, Wyoming, and one in Avon, Colorado. Under his plea agreement, he agreed to forfeit several fossils to the government, including a Tyrannosaurus skull authorities have said likely will be returned to Mongolia.
Rolater apologized to Judge Scott Skavdahl, saying he deeply regretted that he didn't apply his training as a certified public accountant to scrutinizing his dealings with sources exporting fossils to him from China. Lawyers said some shipments Rolater received were intentionally mislabeled to avoid scrutiny from government officials.
Although Skavdahl accepted the plea agreement, he said he questioned whether the punishment was enough to get Rolater's attention. "He knew better, but he liked the money," Skavdahl said.
Federal prosecutor Stu Healy and defense lawyer Pat Crank of Cheyenne both spoke in favor of the plea agreement.
Healy said it's likely that Rolater will face civil lawsuits from customers. Healy also noted that Rolater is giving up fossils including the Tyrannosaurus skull, which Healy said was an exceptionally rare and valuable piece.
Rolater told Skavdahl that the Tyrannosaurus skull he was giving up was worth at least $250,000.
The federal government has sought forfeiture of the skull in a separate federal court in Colorado. Healy said after the court hearing that Rolater's agreement to give it up may make that case unnecessary.
The federal investigation into Rolater's operations began in June 2012 when federal officials received a tip that the Tyrannosaurus skull in his Jackson gallery came from Mongolia, according to a statement the Denver office of Homeland Security Investigations issued after he entered his guilty plea in January.
The skull disappeared from Rolater's gallery after news reports that the agency had seized a separate Bataar skull in New York, according to the Homeland Security Investigations statement.
Federal authorities in May 2013 returned the 70-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus skeleton to the Mongolian government. The repatriated skeleton had been looted from Mongolia's Gobi Desert and illegally smuggled into the U.S. by fossils dealer Eric Prokopi, authorities said.
Prokopi, who bought and sold dinosaur skeletons out of his Florida home, pleaded guilty in late 2012 to smuggling dinosaur fossils into the United States. He is awaiting sentencing in federal court in New York.
Healy told Skavdahl that the federal prosecutions of Rolater and Prokopi both brought the issue of federal prosecutions for fossil smuggling to public attention.
Before those cases, Healy said, fossil dealers operated with a "head-in-the-sand syndrome." They knew there might have been some illegality about how fossils got into the country, but decided that once they were in the United States it was all right to trade in them, he said.
Crank said there have only been a few federal prosecutions on fossil-smuggling charges nationwide. The status of the law in China and Mongolia is unclear whether fossil exports are permitted or, if not, how long they have been prohibited, Crank said.
Houston lawyer Robert Painter represents the Mongolian government in trying to reclaim fossils that have been smuggled out of that country.
"The Mongolian government is very grateful for the cooperation of the justice system here in the United States," Painter said in a telephone interview Tuesday. "Our goal is to see these fossils that were illegally removed from Mongolia repatriated using the proper judicial process."
The Mongolian government installed the Tyrannosaurus it received back from the United States last May in a museum in the capital city of Ulan Bator, Painter said. More than 700,000 of the country's roughly 3 million people had seen it last year, he said.