July 15, 2011

Alaska’s Missing Moon Rocks In Ownership Dispute

Alaska officials are contesting a lawsuit filed by a former resident who claims he rescued moon rocks from the garbage 38 years ago.

The Associated Press (AP) reports that Coleman Anderson sued for formal title to the rocks in December.  He is also asking that if he does not receive the title, he wants to be compensated for finding and returning the rocks.

State officials contend that the moon rocks were stolen from a state museum after a fire.  They are disputing Anderson's story and asking to see the rocks returned.

The moon rocks were brought back in July 1969 with the return of Apollo 11.

President Richard Nixon gave each state and 136 countries moon rocks to celebrate the achievement of man first walking on the moon.

The rocks were encased in acrylic glass and mounted on a plaque of walnut. 

The moon rocks were on display at the Alaska Transportation Museum in Anchorage when an arsonist torched the building September 6, 1973.

Anderson's lawsuit claims the recovery efforts concluded days after the fire, and the remaining debris was declared as garbage.

The lawsuit claims Anderson, who is the stepson of museum curator Phil Redden, entered the "debris area" as crews removed garbage, discovered the moon rocks plaque covered by a layer of melted materials and took it home. 

The suit said Anderson then became the owner of the plaque because the state had abandoned it.

"The day Coleman left there, with the permission of his father and others there, he left with the moon rocks and a bunch of plastic model airplanes," Harris said in a statement. "This is what was in the garbage. He didn't pick these things up because he thought they would be valuable, he just thought that they were cool."

Steve Henrikson, curator of collections at the Alaska State Museum in Juneau, said he first heard about the missing moon rocks when he started his job 21 years ago.

"I never imagined that someone would be suing us for ownership of something that admittedly, right in the lawsuit, it says he went onto our property and took our moon rock out of the ashes of our museum," Henrikson told the AP.

He said Anderson's story "does not correspond with what our documentation shows."

The fire burned paper, cardboard and wood, but witnesses afterward saw the moon rocks plaque intact in its glass display case.  State officials said that the display case was broken and the moon rocks and plaque was removed.

Henrikson said that salvaging had not concluded within days of the fire.

"It took us a couple years for us to clear the site of all the aircraft and other artifacts that were on it," he told the AP. "The building was not totally destroyed. They continued to use it for storage and they, frankly, did not have any other place to take a lot of those things."

Assistant Attorney General Stephen Slotnick accused Anderson of "unlawful conduct" that "has caused the state harm, forcing the state to expend time and money in conducting its investigation and search for the missing moon rocks and plaque, and depriving the state of the use of the moon rocks and plaque for over 37 years."

Harris said no one in 1973 thought the moon rocks were worth anything.

"The state never filed a police report, never filed an insurance claim," he said. "They thought that they had no value, which everyone else thought back then, and that they were thrown out, that they knew they had thrown them out in the trash, but they thought they had been taken away to the dump."

Harris said Anderson learned from news accounts in the last couple years and would like to sell them.  He said Anderson did not want to dispute over ownership so he went to court.

He said that Anderson, who is a vessel captain and appeared in early episodes of the Discovery Channel's "Deadliest Catch," would offer Alaska a discount to buy them back.

"I would argue the state of Alaska is prohibiting themselves from getting the moon rocks back, because all they have to do is pay far less than they're worth, and they would get them back." Harris said in a statement.


Image Caption: Aldrin salutes the flag symbolizing America's victory in the Space Race during the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. Credit: NASA


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