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Feds try to seize dinosaur skull, but doctor says he bought his fair and square

Kevin Krause, Federal Courts Reporter

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The Tyrannosaurus Bataar skulls were dug out of the Gobi desert and illegally smuggled out of Mongolia, federal officials say.

From there, they wound up in the hands of U.S. private collectors who dished out six figures for the fossils, including a Hollywood actor, a New York developer and a North Texas anesthesiologist.

Since federal authorities began a crackdown in 2012 on the little-known black market in dinosaur bones, more than 18 specimens were returned to Mongolia. Two men were convicted in federal court of smuggling fossils into the U.S.

Actor Nicolas Cage was among buyers who agreed to part with their bataar skulls.

But not the Texas doctor.

Dr. James Godwin, a Wichita Falls anesthesiologist, plans to fight for his seized bataar skull, which his attorney says he bought from a business partner several years ago. Michael Villa Jr. told The Dallas Morning News his client will contest the U.S. attorney’s forfeiture lawsuit, filed this month, because he bought the skull legally in the U.S.

“We believe we were an innocent purchaser,” Villa said.

James Godwin(United Regional)
James Godwin
(United Regional)

Federal agents seized the bataar skull from Godwin’s North Texas home in 2013.

The dispute sets the stage for an international custody battle that could provide a rare look into dinosaur fossil smuggling networks.

The Texas legal battle also is likely to reignite simmering tensions between fossil dealers and paleontologists. The scientists argue that fossils sold to private collectors without corresponding data lose their scientific value. But amateur excavators and those who profit from the fossil market say the treasures would remain hidden in the Earth without their work.

Innocent purchase?

The Gobi Desert is fertile ground for dinosaur fossils such as the Tyrannosaurus Bataar, an Asian relative of Tyrannosaurus Rex that roamed the Earth about 65 million years ago during the Cretaceous period.

Bataar fossils were first unearthed in that part of Mongolia during a 1946 expedition, according to the forfeiture lawsuit, filed in Wichita Falls, about two hours northwest of Dallas. The fossils aren’t known to be found elsewhere in the world, experts say.

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


Villa said the forfeiture action means that someone can buy an antiquity from a U.S. store and years later be told to relinquish it because of some foreign law.

“It’s a due process issue,” he said.

Villa also said U.S. government officials have not proved that the seized bataar skull actually originated in Mongolia. And he questioned why they filed the forfeiture action four years after seizing it.

Federal agents display a dinosaur fossil that was among more than 18 returned to Mongolia after being seized in the U.S.(ICE)