Man pleads guilty to taking dinosaur footprint
(AP) -- A 35-year-old Moab man accused of stealing a fossilized dinosaur footprint admitted in federal court Wednesday to stealing the fossil and throwing it in the Colorado River. In exchange for Jared Ehlers pleading guilty to one count of removing a paleontological resource, federal prosecutors agreed to drop three others charges of theft and damage to government property. The agreement calls for Ehlers to serve one year of probation with six months under house arrest. It also requires him to pay $15,000 in restitution. That sentence could be approved or changed by a federal judge when Ehlers is sentenced on Oct. 20. Ehlers' attorney, Tara Isaacson, said in federal court in Salt Lake City on Wednesday afternoon that her client was remorseful and admits "he made a terrible decision." Isaacson did not return messages from The Associated Press seeking additional comment. She has previously said Ehlers hoped to keep the footprint and didn't realize the seriousness of his actions. Prosecutors say Ehlers pried a piece of sandstone with a three-toed ancient dinosaur track from the Hell's Revenge jeep trail in the Sand Flats Recreation Area near Moab in eastern Utah on Feb. 17. He got rid of the footprint on March 3, prosecutors allege in court documents. Authorities said Ehlers tossed the fossil into the Colorado River about 32 miles northeast of Moab. Divers searched the river for a day in March but didn't recover the fossil. Acting U.S. Attorney for Utah Carlie Christensen told reporters outside the courthouse that the restitution repays local law enforcement agencies for the time they spent searching for the fossil, but it doesn't cover the cost of the footprint. "The loss here is incalculable," she said. "I mean the loss to the scientific community, to the American public, is impossible to estimate." After the fossil went missing, investigators questioned Ehlers after seeing his vehicle on security camera footage in the area, Christensen said. During that initial questioning, Ehlers appeared anxious, Christensen said. Authorities believe he threw the rock into the river afterward to conceal the theft. After investigators gathered more evidence, Ehlers admitted to being involved, Christensen said. The print is from the Jurassic Period and up to 190 million years old, said ReBecca Hunt-Foster, Bureau of Land Management Canyon Country District Paleontologist. It comes from a large meat-eating dinosaur that is likely an ancestor to dinosaurs like Allosaurus, she said. The bones of the dinosaur that left the print have never been found, meaning it could be one of thousands of species of dinosaurs that remain undiscovered. Hunt-Foster hopes this case serves as cautionary tale for others considering swiping dinosaur tracks, of which there are thousands in Utah. The state has a well-preserved geological timeframe to find dinosaur prints and the right kind of rocks and conditions for those rocks to be exposed, she said. Ehlers, who co-owns a construction company, originally pleaded not guilty to the four charges, which carried a maximum penalty of 45 years in prison. Christensen said it was unlikely a judge would have sentenced Ehlers to that maximum sentence. The priority for the U.S. Attorney's Office was a conviction on the paleontological resources charge, Christensen said. That charge comes under a federal law passed in 2009 to protect paleontological artifacts and carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison. Ehlers is the second person in Utah charged with the crime, said U.S. Attorney's Office spokeswoman Melodie Rydalch. John Faustman Cowan was charged in 2011, accused of stealing a dinosaur footprint the year before, records show. Prosecutors dismissed the charges against Cowan after he followed terms of a pre-trial agreement that included that he look for a job, avoid traveling out of state and stay off BLM land in Utah. Convicting someone has an deterrent effect on future thefts of a paleontological resource, Christensen said. "You wouldn't go into an art museum and take a piece of art because you felt like it. And this is the same thing," she said. Copyright 2014 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.