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Monster Case: Baylor Lawyer helping to stop illegal trade of dinosaur fossils from mongolia (Page 3)

Dino

After prosecutors in New York took over the case, how did your involvement in the matter evolve?

A few days after the auction, I spoke with an assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, who was chief of the forfeiture unit. We discussed a forfeiture procedure available to the U.S. government in which the government's burden of proof to seize allegedly smuggled property is merely probable cause. If the government successfully files a forfeiture action, it can have the judge issue an in rem arrest warrant and seize the property. Our case was styled United States of America v. One Tyrannosaurus Bataar Skeleton. My wife, Taunya, and I happened to be in New York City and got to watch the FBI actually arrest the dinosaur skeleton. That's something you don't see often! After a federal forfeiture suit is filed, the burden shifts to any potential claimant to prove his or her interest in the seized property by preponderance of evidence.

In short, the U.S. government was willing to help its ally, Mongolia. I discussed this with the Mongolian president and we decided to officially request U.S. assistance and to abate our Texas lawsuit in the meantime. Eventually, we decided to nonsuit the Texas lawsuit.

The U.S. attorney's investigation included resources from Homeland Security and the FBI. In the process, a large smuggling ring involving many more artifacts was uncovered. Eventually, criminal charges were filed against the alleged smuggler of the Tyrannosaurus fossil, Eric Prokopi, and he pled guilty to three felonies.

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I have continued to have a daily role in this case, as the liaison between the U.S. and Mongolian governments, and working with the legal and paleontological experts to provide the testimony necessary for our successful litigation.

What was your reaction to the widespread attention this case generated in the media?

My wife, Taunya, and I practice together and we both have experience in politics and with the media. My lawyer friend in New York, who was with me at the auction, also works with the media and had extensive press contacts. As soon as it was clear that Heritage Auctions did not intend to fully comply with the order, we framed and released a message to the media. I anticipated that this would generate some media attention, but in the end it far exceeded my expectations. Top newspapers around the world have given the story front-page coverage, New Yorker magazine did an in-depth feature, and I appeared on national television in feature pieces on CNN and CBS. Thousands of unique stories were published about this case.

The media coverage was a significant factor that contributed to the fast success of this case. If you think about it, I filed the temporary restraining order application on May 19, 2012. By the end of 2012, the smuggler had pled guilty to three felonies and the stolen dinosaur fossil was essentially on its way back to Mongolia. It would be difficult to think of even a minor car wreck case that would be resolved more quickly.

The day after the auction, this story was all over the media. Two days after the auction, Heritage Auctions called and offered to cooperate, I believe in large part because of all of the negative media attention it received. Within two weeks of the auction, I had retained world-renowned paleontological experts and we were on site in New York City to examine the fossilized skeleton so they could form opinions about its origin.

I think that any time there is a case where a party's conduct goes against the cultural normative beliefs of honesty, fair dealing and obeying a court's order, the media can help generate pressure to correct that conduct.

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