Jared Ehlers, 35, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court on July 9 to removal of a paleontological resource.
The federal offense carries a maximum potential penalty of up to five years in prison, as well as a possible fine of $250,000 or less.
But under the terms of a plea deal in which Ehlers also agreed to pay $15,090 in restitution, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Utah recommended the lesser penalties.
Prosecutors also dropped three additional charges against Ehlers, including theft of government property, depredation of government property and destruction of evidence.
Defense attorney Tara L. Isaacson was in court on an unrelated case and could not be reached for comment. During the July 9 court hearing, Isaacson told the judge that Ehlers “made a terrible decision” in removing the track and later destroying it, according to news reports.
But Acting U.S. Attorney Carlie Christensen said the prosecution and conviction in this case sends a clear message.
“People who do these things will be punished and held accountable,” Christensen said July 15.
The case against Ehlers is based on reports that he dislodged and then removed a 190-million-year-old theropod track from a 150-pound slab of sandstone near the Hell’s Revenge Trail.
In the days that followed, local residents, outfitters and groups came forward to offer thousands of dollars in reward money for information about the incident.
National and even international media coverage of the theft soon intensified, and prosecutors say that Ehlers dumped the slab into the Colorado River near Dewey Bridge in an attempt to cover up the crime.
Utah Department of Public Safety divers and Grand County Search and Rescue volunteers searched the area in early March. But river conditions at the time were murky and mucky, Christensen said, and they were unable to turn up anything.
The odds of finding the fragile sandstone slab have grown even more remote in the months since the initial search efforts, according to Christensen.
“I don’t think there’s much hope or optimism that the fossil will ever be recovered,” she said.
The incident was serious enough that Ehlers is one of just a few people who have been charged under a 2009 federal law that protects the treasure trove of fossils on public lands.
“It was important to the [Bureau of Land Management] to have a conviction under the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act,” Christensen said.
Ehlers, who initially pleaded not guilty to the original charges against him, faced a maximum potential sentence of 45 years behind bars.
Yet although the original charges were significant, Christensen said it’s unlikely that the court would have ordered Ehlers to serve any prison time for property-related crimes.
Based on that belief, Christensen said her office thinks the plea agreement is in the public’s best interests.
“Our primary goal here was to get some restitution,” she said.
According to court records, the Utah Department of Public Safety spent $14,100 on its recovery efforts, while Grand County Search and Rescue spent another $990.
The plea agreement says the value of the footprint itself exceeded $500, although federal officials have said the fossil was “priceless.”
In the absence of any theropod bones or other fossils, Christensen said the tracks are the only records that remain of the meat-eating dinosaur that once roamed around the Moab area.
“The damage that was done here — not only to the scientific community, but to the American public as a whole — was incalculable,” she said.
Ehlers is scheduled to be sentenced on Oct. 20. If U.S. District Judge Dale A. Kimball accepts the plea agreement, Ehlers would be allowed to leave his home in order to work.