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Museum of the Rockies

A dinosaur skull that is believed to have been illegally smuggled out of Mongolia is currently being stored at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman.

FORT WORTH, Texas — It didn't matter to James Godwin that other owners, including actor Nicolas Cage, agreed to part with their Tyrannosaurus bataar skulls after federal authorities said they were among numerous fossils that were illegally smuggled out of Mongolia.

Godwin wants his bataar skull back.

The Wichita Falls anesthesiologist and fossil enthusiast has taken the matter to trial, saying the government waited too long to file a forfeiture lawsuit.

U.S. District Judge Reed O'Connor heard evidence Tuesday during a one-day trial and will settle the matter when he is ready to rule.

Godwin, 76, is believed to be the first U.S. owner of a Mongolian dinosaur fossil to contest a government forfeiture action since authorities began cracking down in 2012 on the little-known black market in dinosaur bones.

Since then, more than 18 specimens have been returned to Mongolia, and two men have been convicted in federal court of smuggling fossils into the U.S.

"I had a giant spider web," James Hasskamp, a supervisory agent for Homeland Security Investigations in Wyoming, said during testimony Tuesday. "It just rapidly spread out."

Godwin is fighting to keep his prized specimen, which he acquired from a Wyoming retail store he partly owned. He is described in recent court filings as having a "passion for nature and amateur paleontology."

The feds maintain that his 70 million-year-old dinosaur skull, which belonged to an Asian relative of Tyrannosaurus rex, was among a horde of dinosaur fossils stolen from Mongolia years ago.

Two previous owners of Godwin's fossil - Rick Rolater and Eric Prokopi - pleaded guilty to conspiring to smuggle dinosaur fossils in connection with other cases from the investigation, according to federal authorities.

The government brought its lawsuit involving Godwin's fossil under the National Stolen Property Act, which often is used to prosecute antiquities trafficking. Under the law, the government has five years from the time an offense is discovered to bring a forfeiture lawsuit.

Agents seized Godwin's fossil in July 2013, and the U.S. attorney's office filed suit in August 2017.

However, Godwin's lawyer, Michael A. Villa Jr., argued Tuesday that the clock didn't begin ticking when the skull was seized but in July 2012, when agents first learned of Godwin's name in connection with the dinosaur skull.

"The statute of limitations begins when the government possesses facts sufficient to trigger an investigation - not whenever the government decides it has sufficiently verified the facts," Villa said in a recent court filing.

The skull, valued at about $225,000, is being stored at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, according to court records.

Paleontologists from the U.S. and Mongolia had been expected to testify, but in a ruling earlier this month the judge narrowed the scope of the trial to the question of whether the statute of limitations had expired.

The international custody battle has provided a rare look into fossil-smuggling networks.

For example, one U.S. dealer traveled to Mongolia to obtain fossils from a supplier and shipped them to China to avoid a U.S. Customs inspection. From there, the fossils were shipped to the United Kingdom and then into the United States, federal officials have said in court filings.

The government's investigation began when someone called federal agents in 2012 to report seeing a bataar skull for sale in Rolater's Wyoming store for $320,000.

Rolater, 73 of Denton was the largest U.S. seller of "high-end Mongolian and Chinese fossils," government lawyers said in court filings. He pleaded guilty in Wyoming in 2014 to a charge of conspiracy to smuggle goods into the U.S. and was sentenced to six months' probation.

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When Homeland Security Investigations agents questioned Godwin about the skull in 2013, he told them he didn't know it was illegal to possess such items until he heard about a 2012 case involving a fossil smuggler, court records say.

"Godwin also claimed that if it was illegal to possess or sell Mongolian fossils, there was never any enforcement of those prohibitions," Assistant U.S. Attorney Dimitri N. Rocha said in the amended forfeiture lawsuit.

Homeland Security Investigations found that Godwin's bataar skull was unearthed from the Nemegt Basin in the Gobi Desert in Mongolia between 2000 and 2011, according to the forfeiture lawsuit. It ended up in the hands of a U.S. citizen living in Japan who sold it about 2009 to Prokopi in the U.S., court records say.

Prokopi's misadventures in the dinosaur fossil world are the subject of a recent book. He served three months in jail and agreed to hand over his fossils in an agreement with federal prosecutors in New York.

Prokopi sold the bataar skull to a Florida fossil dealer, who sold it to a man who did restoration work on it, federal authorities say. That person sold the skull to the By Nature Gallery, a retail store in Wyoming and Colorado that Godwin owned with Rolater, court records say. The gallery transferred it to Godwin in 2012.

It was unclear from testimony Tuesday whether that transfer constituted an actual sale. Godwin's fossil did not come with import documents or a certificate of authenticity as other fossils do, authorities say.

Godwin recently divulged in court documents that about 40 percent of his bataar skull is "fake," meaning that portions of it were filled in with cast resin as part of a restoration. Such work is common for unearthed fossils, which typically are found with pieces of bone missing.

The Gobi Desert is fertile ground for fossils from dinosaurs such as the Tyrannosaurus bataar, which roamed the Earth during the Cretaceous period. Bataar fossils were first found in that part of Mongolia during a 1946 expedition, according to the forfeiture lawsuit. The fossils aren't known to be found elsewhere in the world, experts say.

Multiple Tyrannosaurus bataar skulls that were dug out of the Gobi desert and smuggled out of Mongolia ended up in the hands of private U.S. collectors who dished out six figures for the fossils, court records say.

In Mongolia, which is nestled between China and Russia, antiques and relics such as dinosaur fossils are the property of the government even if they're excavated from private land, the forfeiture lawsuit says.

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