The Tyrannosaurus Bataar skulls were dug out of the Gobi desert and illegally smuggled out of Mongolia, federal officials say.
From there, they wound up in the hands of U.S. private collectors who dished out six figures for the fossils, including a Hollywood actor, a New York developer and a North Texas anesthesiologist.
Since federal authorities began a crackdown in 2012 on the little-known black market in dinosaur bones, more than 18 specimens were returned to Mongolia. Two men were convicted in federal court of smuggling fossils into the U.S.
Actor Nicholas Cage was among those who agreed to part with their bataar skulls.
But not the Texas doctor.
Dr. James Godwin, a Wichita Falls anesthesiologist, plans to fight for his seized bataar skull, which his attorney says he bought from a business partner several years ago. Michael Villa Jr. told The Dallas Morning News his client will contest the U.S. attorney's forfeiture lawsuit, filed this month in Dallas, because he bought the skull legally in the U.S.
"We believe we were an innocent purchaser," Villa said.
Federal agents seized the bataar skull from Godwin's North Texas home in 2013.
The dispute sets the stage for an international custody battle that could provide a rare look into dinosaur fossil smuggling networks.
The Dallas legal battle also is likely to reignite simmering tensions between fossil dealers and paleontologists. The scientists argue that fossils sold to private collectors without corresponding data lose their scientific value. But amateur excavators and those who profit from the fossil market say the treasures would remain hidden in the Earth without their work.
The Gobi Desert is fertile ground for dinosaur fossils such as the Tyrannosaurus Baatar, an Asian relative of Tyrannosaurus Rex that roamed the Earth about 65 million years ago during the Cretaceous period.
Bataar fossils were first unearthed in that part of Mongolia during a 1946 expedition, according to the Dallas forfeiture lawsuit. The fossils aren't known to be found elsewhere in the world, experts say.
In Mongolia, which is nestled between China and Russia, dinosaur fossils are the property of the government even if they're excavated from private land, the forfeiture lawsuit says.
Villa said the forfeiture action means that someone can buy an antiquity from a U.S. store and years later be told they have to relinquish it because of some foreign law.
"It's a due process issue," he said.
Villa also said U.S. government officials have not proven that the seized baatar skull actually originated in Mongolia. And he questioned why they filed the forfeiture action four years after seizing it.
Villa added that there is case law favorable to his client that involved other antiquities imported into the U.S. "Just because you claim it's contraband is not enough," he said.
But Robert Painter, a Houston lawyer who represents Mongolia, said U.S. authorities have plenty of evidence from the two criminal prosecutions and multiple federal forfeiture judgments involving similar fossils. Federal judges in those cases, he said, were "satisfied that the government met the burden of proof."
"I am very surprised that they would contest it," he said about the Texas case. "I would expect that this would be a very uphill – perhaps a vertical uphill battle – for the anesthesiologist."
Painter said "we can have sympathy for someone" who buys a foreign artifact without knowing the law. But such a buyer, he added, should always look into whether it's legal to own.
In 2012, the black market in purloined dinosaur fossils was active in the U.S. and "operating in plain sight," a government prosecutor wrote.
The investigation led federal agents to a Florida man, Eric Prokopi, who called himself a "commercial paleontologist." Prokopi, 42, is not a scientist but he painstakingly prepared and assembled dinosaur skeletons in his backyard.
In June 2012, federal prosecutors in New York filed a forfeiture lawsuit to recover a nearly complete Tyrannosaurus Bataar skeleton belonging to Prokopi that a Dallas-based auctioneer sold for more than $1 million.
Prokopi, who imported the bones via Great Britain and mounted the skeleton, initially fought the case, generating much publicity.
But when he decided to plead guilty to federal smuggling charges, it was the break agents needed. Prokopi led them to other Tyrannosaurus Bataar fossils, court records say.
One of them was a Colorado man who had displayed his specimen in his Wyoming store.
Rick Rolater owned two By Nature Gallery stores – one in Wyoming and one in Colorado. Rolater, 72, was at the time the largest U.S. seller of "high-end Mongolian and Chinese fossils," prosecutors said.
Agents had learned about Rolater from a caller to a Homeland Security Investigations hotline who in June 2012 reported seeing a bataar skull for sale in his Wyoming store for $320,000.
But Rolater had his gallery director pull the skull from the store and hide it after both saw news reports of the New York seizure, authorities said.
Rolater tried to hide his dinosaur fossils from agents, who eventually seized them from a Wyoming property he rented as well as from a crawl space in his Colorado home, the forfeiture suit said.
Rolater told agents that months earlier he had "transferred" a different bataar skull to Godwin, who owned about a third of the By Nature stores. Rolater said it was not a normal retail sale, according to the forfeiture suit.
Rolater pleaded guilty to smuggling charges after agents found emails on his computer from his Chinese supplier, describing how he would sidestep U.S. customs and import regulations, court records show.
He received probation in March 2014. When reached, Rolater declined to comment due to "ongoing litigation in which I might be a witness."
Four months later, Prokopi was sentenced to three months in federal prison.
Painter said there was a "massive amount" of dinosaur fossil smuggling in the U.S. at the time of Prokopi's Tyrannosaurus Bataar auction in New York.
"I think that litigation and the prosecutions have had a tremendous chilling effect and stopped a lot of it," he said.
But New York-based attorney Georges Lederman, who represented Prokopi, said U.S. authorities exaggerated the problem because it made for a better story.
"It was just a few guys who had this passion who may have crossed the line in certain instances," he said. "But in no way was it a sophisticated underground black market smuggling network that the government portrayed it to be."
Villa said there's no indication that the government is seeking criminal charges against Godwin, who he called a fossil enthusiast.
But Lederman said there is a reason government forfeiture cases are not usually contested.
"My own view is that if you dare to challenge the government on a forfeiture action, you may very well find yourself charged with a crime," he said, noting that it happened to his client.
As a result, most innocent owners just let it go, he said.
"They don't want the government digging into their affairs anymore," Lederman said.