U.S. Magistrate Judge Henry Pitman at times seemed unimpressed as the prosecutor urged bail be raised from $100,000 to $600,000 for 38-year-old Eric Prokopi, saying he might go abroad with the proceeds of hundreds of thousands of dollars he could earn selling stolen dinosaur relics.
After hearing lengthy arguments, Pitman raised Prokopi's bail to $250,000, but he lifted a Florida judge's requirement that he be confined to his Gainesville, Fla., home.
Prokopi, a fossils dealer who has been free on bail since his Wednesday arrest, is the owner of a 70 million-year-old Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton, known as Ty, that was seized by the government in June in a civil forfeiture action. The government accused Prokopi of smuggling the bones into the country illegally from Mongolia before assembling them into a skeleton that was sold by Dallas-based auction house Heritage Auctions for $1.05 million.
"Is there a veritable crime wave of dinosaur bones being sold to the public?" Pitman asked Assistant U.S. Attorney Martin S. Bell. The prosecutor responded that the level of sales "far exceeds" the effort by law enforcement authorities to stop them.
The lack of law enforcement, he said, explains why some fossils produced through a black market in stolen relics can be sold at public auctions.
"There's a real possibility what essentially is a black market can hide in clear sight," Bell said.
Prokopi's lawyer, Georges G. Lederman, told Pitman that publicity about his client's case had ruined his business.
"The notion that anybody would buy dinosaur fossils from my client is absurd," he said. "My client is radioactive when it comes to trying to earn a living in his business."
Bell, though, said a 400-pound box of dinosaur bones was delivered to Prokopi's home even as the government was searching his residence last week. The prosecutor said the government also believed Prokopi was trying to move a Tyrannosaurus skeleton stolen from Mongolia to Denver for its eventual auction through a California gallery.
"He's a participant in the black market," Bell said.
In court papers, the government has accused Prokopi of manipulating U.S. customs forms to smuggle dinosaur skeletons. It also said he has been photographed by a witness in Mongolia and that he has made frequent trips there, including this year.
Lederman said the dinosaur bones delivered to Prokopi's home during the government search belonged to another fossils dealer who wanted Prokopi to restore them.
Lederman said outside court that it was possible the government brought criminal charges to try to end Prokopi's challenge to the government's plan to ship the skeleton to Mongolia.
"The timing is interesting," he said. "There's been a lot of litigating on the forfeiture action which would suggest the timing of the criminal complaint might be used as leverage."
He added: "The government's case is suspect. There's very little law precedent here and I think we will prevail at the end of the day."