SALT LAKE CITY — A Moab man accused of stealing and destroying a fossilized dinosaur footprint from BLM-administered lands in Grand County made his first appearance in federal court Wednesday.
During the brief hearing, Jared Frederick Ehlers was formally notified of the charges filed against him and the maximum penalty for each offense. Ehlers pleaded not guilty to all four counts and U.S. Chief Magistrate Judge Brooke C. Wells scheduled a four-day jury trial, which is set to begin July 7.
Ehlers, 35, was indicted by a federal grand jury in March on one count each of removal of paleontological resources, theft of government property, depredation of government property and destruction of evidence.
Authorities believe Ehlers pried a fossilized Allosaurus footprint out of the ground near the Hell's Revenge off-road trail on Feb. 17. The track was later dumped off Dewey Bridge into the Colorado River, about 30 miles east of Moab.
Members of the Utah Department of Public Safety's dive team spent several hours searching the river after a suspect came forward several days later and told authorities where the three-toed dinosaur track had been dumped. The fossil still has not been recovered.
Defense attorney Tara Isaacson declined comment on the case as she and her client left the courthouse Wednesday. Assistant U.S. attorney Richard McKelvie also declined to discuss details of the case after the hearing.
The prosecutor did confirm, however, that Ehlers is the first person in Utah to be charged under the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act. Signed into law in 2009, the act protects dinosaur tracks and prehistoric fossils from vandalism and theft. Violators face criminal and civil penalties, including fines and possible prison time.
"We consider it to be invaluable," McKelvie said, when asked to put a price tag on the stolen fossil. "We're talking about a footprint that was left on the earth 190 million years ago."
The combined maximum penalty for the charges filed against Ehlers is 45 years in federal prison. It's unlikely, though, that he will receive a maximum sentence if he is convicted, McKelvie said.
"Those maximum penalties are set by Congress," he said. "We have sentencing guidelines that really instruct the court on what the sentence should be and in an offense like this the actual sentence would be much lower than (the maximum) in almost every circumstance.
"Forty-five years is out of the question," the prosecutor added.
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