A Canadian man who tried to sell high-quality dinosaur fossils smuggled out of China to undercover agents at a Tucson gem show last year is getting booted out of the country and fined $25,000.
Jun Yang of Richmond, British Columbia was caught hawking a rare, scientifically valuable fossil of a Psittacosaurus, the smallish "parrot-lizard" herbivore known for its striking beak. He made no bones about where he'd gotten it: He admitted to an undercover agent he'd smuggled it out of China illegally but claimed he'd done nothing against U.S. law. Yang also had a display of fossilized eggs from hadrosaurs — better known as duck-billed dinosaurs.
Homeland Security Investigations and the Arizona U.S. Attorney's Office disagreed with Yang's legal analysis and charged him initially with taking wildlife illegally for possession of the 100 million-year-old-plus fossils. That charge later was dropped, and he pleaded guilty in August to a felony count of smuggling goods into the United States.
Yang also received five years of unsupervised probation during a sentencing hearing this week before U.S. District Court Judge Cindy Jorgenson, but the terms allow him to live and work in his Canadian hometown. He pleaded guilty in August to a federal felony count of smuggling goods into the United States. The fossils are being returned to China now that the case has been adjudicated.
HSI special agents routinely are sent to the annual Tucson Gem, Mineral & Fossil Showcase events as part of the agency's robust Cultural Art, Property and Antiques Investigations enforcement program, says Chad Plantz, HSI assistant special agent in charge.
On February 10, 2015, agents happened upon Yang at the Globex Gem and Mineral Show, which took place place at the Days Inn at 222 South Freeway in Tucson. They quickly noticed the stunning, nearly complete Psittacosaurus fossil for sale in a display area reserved for Arctic Products Inc. of Richmond, B.C.
Yang, representing himself as president of the company, told the undercover agents he imported the fossils "directly from China," Plantz says.
Yang explained to the agents that the parrot-lizard fossil was 100-130 million years old and had been "dug up" a few hundred miles south of Mongolia, court records state. He said the price was $15,000. Agents also heard him talk to a customer about hadrosaur eggs in a display box going for $450 apiece.
Later in the day, the agents returned to Yang's room and acted like they were interested in buying the fossils. They chatted up Yang, and he admitted freely that he'd smuggled the fossils illegally out of China, but he assured his pretend buyers that although what he'd done was illegal in China, it was legal to sell or possess the items in the United States. He explained that he'd shipped the fossils surreptitiously from China in containers with stone carvings but never declared the fossils. Go ahead and take pictures, Yang told them.
The photos of Yang's goods were sent to an unidentified "subject matter expert," who confirmed the fossils were of "high scientific value" and illegal under Chinese law to sell to "foreigners or foreign organizations."
On February 14, an agent returned to Yang's room and started asking about the hadrosaur eggs. Yang told the agent he'd already sold one of the eggs, but he'd sell the other 13 for $5,000. He said "that they were very rare and that he used to have a lot, but he may not be able to get them anymore," the agent states.
Yang then took the agent to an adjacent room and showed him the Psittacosaurus fossil, relating the same story about taking the fossil out of China. Asked how he gets the fossils out of China, Yang reportedly explained that "the fossils are put in containers with the stone carvings" and only the stone is declared to customs authorities.
"The Chinese side of the smuggling operation was unclear," Plantz tells New Times.
Despite court records indicating one and possibly more hadrosaur eggs were sold by Yang, authorities tell New Times they're not sure anyone is in possession of items Yang had for sale at the gem show.
"We looked at Yang's inventory and seized all items illegally imported in the U.S.," says Yasmeen Pitts O'Keefe, spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
O'Keefe encourages anyone who believes they might own illegal items purchased from Yang to call HSI.
Online shipping reports suggest that Yang often imports stone carvings, raising questions about the extent of the illicit part of his import business.
One report shows that Jun Yang of Arctic Products had "stone carvings" shipped in January 2013 directly to the Days Inn where he was caught with the fossils. The records state that the shipment originated from a company called Weifang Yuanye Arts and Handicrafts in Shandong, China.
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Another report shows that Yang had 61,000 pounds of "stone carvings" shipped to his home in British Columbia in January 2014, also from the same company, Weifang. There apparently are several other such reports.
Yang's home and business never was searched by authorities, as far as ICE knows, O'Keefe says.
“These prehistoric treasures rightfully belong to the Chinese people,” said Matthew C. Allen, special
agent in charge for HSI Phoenix, in a written statement. “It’s shameful that someone would plunder specimens like these from another nation simply to pleasure hobbyists and line their own pockets.”
Yet with what amounts to a slap on the wrist from the federal justice system, and being sent home to an import business that may still be thriving in Canada, Yang's future in plundering may not be finished.