SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A Utah man accused of stealing a priceless fossilized dinosaur footprint that’s never been recovered pleaded not guilty Wednesday to federal charges.
Prosecutors say Jared Ehlers, 35, of Moab, dislodged 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.
The print is from the Jurassic Period and up to 190 million years old, Bureau of Land Management paleontologists said.
Officials have not been able to find the stone since it was removed on Feb. 17.
Soon after Ehlers entered his plea in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City, Federal Magistrate Judge Brooke Wells scheduled a four-day trial starting July 7.
Ehlers did not speak much during the hearing and declined afterward to comment to reporters. He faces up to 45 years in prison on charges of theft of government property, damage to government property, destroying evidence and removal of paleontological resources. The latter charge stems from a federal law passed in 2009 to protect paleontological artifacts.
His attorney, Tara Isaacson, said her client was interested in the footprint and hoped to keep it for himself.
“He feels terrible. He made a mistake,” Isaacson told The Associated Press. “He didn’t realize how serious it was.”
She said Ehlers had no intention of selling the footprint. Isaacson declined to offer further details about the case.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard McKelvie said he didn’t believe prosecutors would recommend the 45-year maximum sentence to the judge in the theft of the footprint that’s considered “invaluable.”
“We’re talking about a footprint that was left on the Earth 190 million years ago,” McKelvie said.
The stone, with an estimated weight of 100 to 150 pounds, was loosened and likely would not have required any special tools to pry away, McKelvie said.
He said investigators do not suspect Ehlers had any accomplices.
The U.S. attorney’s office in Utah announced in March that a grand jury returned an indictment against Ehlers.
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