A New Mexico businessman is at the center of a yearlong federal investigation into the theft of fossil dinosaur eggs from Mongolia, a nascent republic bigger than Texas wedged between Russia and China.
The nation is rich in fossils and has brought increased pressure on the United States for aid in halting the flow of cultural treasures across its borders. The new cooperation has already yielded high-profile prosecutions in Montana and New York.
The Homeland Security Investigations probe of Touchstone Galleries, headquartered at the Sandia Park home of owner Joseph Wilhelm, began with a citizen tip in 2013 about the source of items for sale at an Arizona store.
Whole dinosaur eggs preserved in the reddish-brown sandstone where they were first laid were available.
The dinosaur is an oviraptor, a birdlike, feathered, flightless creature that lived 75 million to 90 million years ago – the late Cretaceous period – in what is now the Gobi Desert in southern Mongolia.
The nesting dinosaur was named by the paleontologist who discovered remains in 1924 – “ovi” for eggs and “raptor” for thief – thinking then that the dinosaur had stolen eggs from another species. The 1990s discovery of an oviraptor protecting a brood of eggs at the time of its death altered that view, and some stunning fossil remains have been discovered in the last two decades.
Homeland Security Investigations, which looks into customs-related breaches of law, is continuing its investigation. No criminal charges have been filed, nor have any civil forfeiture proceedings been initiated.
Wilhelm said he believes HSI is conducting “a wide-ranging investigation of the Asian fossil trade.”
“My interpretation is we’re one of many stops and they’re still developing what they’re going to try to do,” he said earlier this month.
“I still believe what I was doing was legal.”
In October, 14 months after starting out to see if import/export laws had been violated, federal agents searched Touchstone Galleries in Taos, Santa Fe and Cedar Crest, and Wilhelm’s home in Sandia Park. The galleries sell gems, minerals and jewelry, as well as fossil specimens ranging from ammonites and trilobites up to a mounted cave bear skeleton.
Agents took primarily business records on computers, copied them and returned them to Wilhelm.
HSI authority comes from statutes dealing with stolen goods – smuggling prohibited items into or out of the U.S., selling stolen goods, conspiracy and money laundering. A section of the U.S. criminal code makes it a crime to fraudulently or knowingly buy or sell merchandise that has entered the country illegally.
According to HSI agent John Koski’s 50-plus page affidavit, the ban on sale of culturally significant objects was codified in the constitution of Mongolia in 1924. Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj provided a translated copy to the United States to bolster his nation’s increasing pressure on the U.S. to enforce those laws.
Wilhelm said the search warrant affidavits provide “the only place in North America that I’m aware of that that law has been translated into English.
“A statute written in Mongolian and published in the Gobi desert someplace … is really difficult for a small-time retailer in the Southwest of the U.S., that is buying in a U.S. location, to actually have a chance of knowing about that,” he said.
China has similar laws asserting state ownership of fossils, banning their export and maintaining a right to recover fossils illegally carried out of the country.
“Mongolia has very strict laws regarding export,” said New Mexico Museum of Natural History paleontology curator Tom Williamson, who is not involved in the case. “For a long time, the federal government turned a blind eye (to imports) but now is more rigorous.”
One well-publicized case, he said, was that of a tarbosaurus bataar, similar to the tyranonosaurus rex, that had been painstakingly mounted by a commercial paleontologist in Florida and was being sold at a Manhattan auction before the sale was halted at the behest of the Mongolian government.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office then filed forfeiture documents in New York to take them as criminal proceeds. In the end, prosecutors secured both the skeleton and a criminal conviction.
The oviraptor is a very close ancestor of birds, Williamson said, and spectacular specimens have emerged from Mongolia in the last 15 years. Understanding what dinosaur embryos look like compared with adults, and how they grew, make it important for scientists to have fossil egg specimens available for research – which doesn’t happen when they are in private hands, he said.
HSI, after ascertaining that an egg cluster was for sale at Touchstone in Sedona, Ariz., sent photos to a paleontologist specializing in the evolution of birds at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, who said they looked authentic.
Agents next bought a single oviraptor egg for $1,900 and a double egg set for $3,900 from the gallery in Santa Fe.
The store manager told them oviraptor eggs were rare and would not be in the store’s inventory again because of “what’s going on in Mongolia” – a discontinuation of excavation and exportation by the Mongolian government, accompanied by a corresponding increase in smuggling of oviraptor eggs.
HSI purchased a three-egg set for $5,021 from the Sedona gallery after meeting with Wilhelm and his wife, Susan, who said the eggs were purchased from a brother and sister who arranged their transport in 2008 and that such specimens were unlikely to be available again.
“They have drawn a line in the sandstone, if you will,” Wilhelm told Koski, according to the affidavit. “Their permitting process has gone from doing your application to getting your permit a week or two later … kind of like the Keystone pipeline. You have the idea.”
Agents obtained warrants requiring Google and Yahoo to permit access to the galleries’ email accounts before going to U.S. Magistrate Judge Steve Yarbrough in Albuquerque for permission to take and search the gallery’s computer equipment for financial information, invoices and other records.
HSI is not talking
“Because this (is an) ongoing investigation, and due to the sensitivities of this case, HSI cannot comment at this time,” HSI public information officer Yasmeen Pitts O’Keefe said in an email earlier this month.
Wilhelm is also saying little about the investigation.
“Within the constraints of normal concerns, we’re doing what we can to cooperate with them,” he said.