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Tyrannosaurus at center of custody case going home to Mongolia

By Chris Francescani

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A nearly complete 70-million-year-old tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton will be returned to Mongolia following the high-profile prosecution of a Florida paleontologist by federal authorities in New York, U.S. authorities said on Thursday.

A New York federal judge ordered the skeleton and other fossils forfeited to the U.S. government this week after the paleontologist pled guilty in December to fraud and conspiracy.

Ellen Davis, a spokeswoman for Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said his office would return the 8-foot-tall (2.4 meter), 24-foot-long (7.3 meter), mostly reconstructed cousin of the Tyrannosaurus rex.

Mongolian officials demanded the skeleton's return after paleontologist Eric Prokopi sold it at a Manhattan auction last spring for $1.05 million. Mongolia suspected the skeleton had been smuggled out of its fossil-rich Gobi desert

U.S. authorities filed charges against Prokopi and seized the skeleton, which is fossilized bones welded to a metal frame. In announcing the seizure, Bharara called Prokopi a "one man black market in prehistoric fossils."

Authorities accused Prokopi of having lied on U.S. customs forms when he declared the fossilized bones were worth $19,000.

In a New York courtroom in September, Prokopi's defense attorney challenged the charge that his client had lied on the forms, saying the reconstruction was not a single creature but bones from multiple dinosaurs. Mongolian authorities and U.S. government paleontological experts believed it was a single creature.

A federal judge suggested the skeleton might be a "Frankenstein model of dinosaur parts" and asked a prosecutor why government experts had not recognized that the skeleton was from several sources.

"It was marketed as one dinosaur," the prosecutor said. "A 75 percent complete, but one dinosaur."

In December, Prokopi pleaded guilty to conspiracy, entry of goods by means of false statements, and the interstate and foreign transportation of goods taken by fraud.

He faces at least 10 years in prison if convicted on the fraud charge when he is sentenced in April.

(Reporting By Chris Francescani; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Toni Reinhold)

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