Lawsuit lands dinosaur bone in federal court

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DENVER (AP) - A lawsuit in Denver’s U.S. District Court names a “fossilized Tyrannosaurus bataar skull” as the defendant.

The legal maneuver essentially repatriates the skull, 67 million years after the dinosaur’s demise, as if it were a living, breathing Mongolian citizen. The giant oval skull with long razor teeth will soon join a world-wide migration of dinosaur bones to a museum 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 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.

Another debate is raging over 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.

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.

Crank said before Prokopi’s arrest, Rolater displayed a giant T. bataar skull in the front window of his Jackson Hole gallery.

Thieves will smash a T. rex skull just to extract the valuable teeth, said Dr. Mark Norell, paleontology curator at New York City’s American Museum of Natural History.

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.

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 “archaeological, 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.”

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