BEAVER CREEK — When local gallery owner Rick Rolater bought fossils from his Chinese broker he wasn’t violating any federal policy. However, when that policy changed, Rolater found himself swept up in a federal net and facing conspiracy charges.
Rolater, 69, of Eagle, forfeited any claim to a Tyrannosaurus skull that likely will be heading back home to Mongolia.
Cheyenne, Wyo., lawyer Pat Crank represented Rolater at the plea hearing before U.S. Magistrate Kelly Rankin in Cheyenne, where Rolater plead guilty to a federal conspiracy charge.
Crank said Rolater thought he was dealing with a legitimate fossil exporter and that his client was caught in the federal government’s zeal for prosecuting such cases.
“It’s unfortunate that there are literally thousands of these things out there, and for years, no one regulated the importation or the sale of any of these fossils,” Crank said. “Now all of a sudden the rules have changed, and real nice people like Rick Rolater get caught up in importing and selling what literally thousands of people do.”
People have openly bought and sold Mongolian and Chinese fossils for years at mineral and fossil shows, such as those in Tucson, Ariz., and Denver, Crank said. However, Mongolia and China recently decided they didn’t view their law in that fashion and wanted to stop the export of fossils, so they sought help from the U.S. government, Crank said.
“Rick thought he was dealing with a reputable person in China who had a permit to sell Chinese fossils,” Crank said.
Crank said the first bombshell that this might not be the case came in May 2012, when Eric Prokopi tried to auction a complete Tyrannosaurus Bataar skeleton, a smaller version of the T-Rex, through Heritage Auctions in New York City.
The Mongolian government got an injunction to stop the auction, and U.S. customs agents seized the skeleton.
Federal authorities say Prokopi, who bought and sold dinosaur skeletons out of his Florida home, illegally imported the bones into the U.S. and assembled them into a skeleton. The feds said in a statement that Prokopi’s skeleton had been looted from Mongolia’s Gobi Desert.
In May 2013, federal authorities returned the 70-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus skeleton to the Mongolian government.
Rolater acquired his fossils before Prokopi’s case jumped into the headlines and before anyone knew anything was amiss, Crank said. Under the new interpretation of Chinese and Mongolian law, Rolater’s broker in China, Tang Song, didn’t have the right to sell them, Crank said.
Crank said the U.S. government asserted that when Prokopi’s Tyrannosaurus Bataar skeleton was seized, Rolater should have figured out that it was illegal to buy and sell Chinese and Mongolian fossils.
“They contend Rick should have known something was up with this,” Crank said.
That’s when the federal government accused him of conspiring to smuggle fossils items into the U.S., Crank said.
“He didn’t realize there was anything illegal about this,” Crank said. “You could go to any of these shows and openly buy and sell any of these items.”
The U.S. government’s legal opinion is that every fossil dug up in Mongolia and China always remains the property of Mongolia and China. They say it’s illegal to buy and sell vertebrate fossils, Crank said.
Rolater has sold fossils through two By Nature Gallery stores, one in Beaver Creek and one in Jackson Hole, Wyo. He faces a $25,000 fine and two years of probation under his plea agreement. In Rolater’s plea agreement he didn’t admit the Mongolian fossils were imported illegally, Crank said.
He appears before U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl for sentencing March 18 in Casper, Wyo.
He also agreed to forfeit a saber-toothed cat skull and three dinosaur fossils imported from China.
Federal officials and a lawyer representing the government of Mongolia say the prosecution marks a continuing push to crack down on fossil smuggling.
The investigation into Rolater’s operations began when federal officials received a tip that the Tyrannosaurus skull in his Jackson gallery came from Mongolia, according to a statement by HSI in Denver. The office also covers the state of Wyoming.
Houston lawyer Robert Painter represents the Mongolian government in trying to reclaim fossils that have been smuggled out of that country. Painter said the Mongolian government has put the repatriated Tyrannosaurus skeleton up for display in a temporary structure in the capital city of Ulaan Baatar. He said that 750,000 of the country’s roughly 3 million people had seen it by the end of last year.
Painter said Mongolia is working to convert a museum once dedicated to former Soviet leader Vladimir I. Lenin to house the Tyrannosaurus skeleton and other dinosaur fossils.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.