A federal grand jury returned the indictments Wednesday afternoon charging Jared Ehlers, age 35, with violations of federal law in connection with the excavation and removal of the dinosaur track from the Hell’s Revenge area of the Sand Flats Recreation Area on Feb. 17.
The stolen track was made by a theropod – a three-toed meat-eating dinosaur. The print was part of a rock slab measuring about 1 foot by 3 feet and weighing approximately 200 pounds, BLM officials have said.
In the first count of the indictment, Ehlers is charged with “removal of paleontological resources.” Federal prosecutors allege that Ehlers “knowingly excavated, removed, damaged or otherwise altered or defaced the three-toed dinosaur track, located on federal land.” The charge carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison.
Ehlers is also charged with theft of government property and depredation of government property. Both charges carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.
Prosecutors also allege that Ehlers “tried to destroy or conceal the dinosaur track in an effort to obstruct or influence the investigation.” That charge carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.
Prosecutors emphasized that an indictment is not a finding of guilt. “Individuals charged in indictments are presumed innocent unless or until proven guilty in court,” prosecutors said in the news release.
A summons will be issued to Ehlers to appear in federal court, according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Salt Lake City.
This weekend, the search for the dinosaur track went underwater after authorities received a tip that the artifact had been dumped into the Colorado River.
A dive team from the Utah Department of Public Safety and volunteers with Grand County Search and Rescue spent most of the day on Saturday, March 8 using sonar equipment to try to locate the dinosaur track in an area of the Colorado River near Dewey Bridge on state Route 128. The search, however, was unsuccessful and no additional search effort is planned.
“The search is over,” Melodie Rydalch, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Salt Lake City, said Monday, March 10.
Grand County Sheriff Steve White said March 9 that the divers “felt confident that they had covered the area thoroughly.” However, dark, murky conditions underwater and the presence of debris hampered the efforts.
“They were focusing pretty much near the bridge. There was a lot of old rebar and other material down there that created a dangerous situation for the divers,” White said. “It was called off as it started to get dark.”
Being submerged in water for an extended period of time will almost certainly severely damage or destroy the dinosaur track, said ReBecca Hunt-Foster, a paleontologist with the Moab BLM Field Office.
“[The block containing the track] is sandstone, but luckily, the layer the track was in is a thin limestone,” Hunt-Foster said this week. “So it’s possible it could potentially hold up for a little bit.”
She said the incident has been frustrating for both BLM officials and the public.
“It’s frustrating and disappointing that somebody would want to take something like that away from everybody else who wants to enjoy it,” Hunt-Foster said.
However, the theft has rallied many local residents to be proactive in helping protect archaeological and paleontological resources. “
If there’s any positive that’s coming out of this it’s seeing people’s reactions,” she said. “And there is interest in seeing these resources protected. The community support has been amazing.”
Part of that support has come in the form of pledges for reward money. A group of local outfitters, individuals and organizations has raised almost $7,000 toward a reward. That includes a pledge of $5,000 from the Red Rock 4-Wheelers. The BLM is also offering a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible.
Sheriff White said he believes the fundraising effort played a role in helping law enforcement identify Ehlers.
“To my mind it certainly was a part of it,” White said. “I think it helped.”
The case is being investigated by BLM special agents and the Grand County Sheriff’s Office. The Utah Department of Public Safety also assisted in the case.