Picture it: Apollo 11, man's first visit to the moon. The iconic 1969 cover of Life magazine with astronaut Buzz Aldrin in his bulky space suit standing on the dusty surface, Neil Armstrong reflected in his silver visor.
At some point on that trip, the astronauts scooped up some rocks to take back to Earth to be studied by geologists. Some tiny rock chunks, so small they are sometimes called "moon dust," became souvenirs, set in clear plastic and mounted on plaques. They were given to 135 countries and all 50 U.S. states, along with small flags that were also carried to the moon.
President Richard Nixon presented an Apollo 11 Goodwill Moon Rock to Alaska Gov. Keith Miller in December 1969.
Just a few years later, it vanished.
The last time anyone saw Alaska's Apollo 11 moon rock plaque, which actually contained several tiny rocks, was 1973. It was part of an exhibit, stored in a glass case at a state transportation museum on Lake Hood. The museum burned that year in a fire that was later determined to be arson.
After the fire, the moon rocks went missing.
Fast-forward 37 years to 2010. Joseph Gutheinz, a Texas-based attorney and retired senior special agent with NASA, was teaching a graduate class in criminology at the online University of Phoenix. He assigned his students to investigate missing moon rocks.
When Gutheinz worked for NASA, his job was to investigate space-related crime, including stolen and fake space objects, he told me in a phone interview last week. Moon rocks became a fascination. Of the 370 or so moon rocks given out after the Apollo 11 and Apollo 17 moon missions, about 187 are unaccounted for, he said. Moon rocks, even tiny ones, are very valuable to collectors. Some sell on the black market for millions. The only legal sale of a moon rock, collected during an unmanned Soviet space mission, approached $450,000. That was more than 15 years ago.
"And you could barely even see it," he said.
Gutheinz chased missing moon rocks for years and led the only successful undercover moon rock sting operation, Operation Lunar Eclipse, in 1998. It recovered a missing rock, originally given to Honduras, in a vault in Florida, he said. Moon rocks are meant to be public property, displayed to help people get a better understanding of the moon.
"NASA has such reverence for moon rocks," he said.
"Nobody is allowed to keep a moon rock, not even Walter Cronkite (who was given one), not even the astronauts. They have to give them to museums."
One of Guthienz's students, a Michigan woman named Elizabeth Riker, was assigned to investigate Alaska's moon rock disappearance. She published a short piece on the missing moon rocks in the Capital City Weekly in Juneau last August. Another column on the subject, written by Fairbanks Daily News-Miner columnist Dermot Cole, came out a few weeks later.
Riker lost the trail of the rock in 1971, two years before the fire. But her column started a chain of events that would eventually start to unravel the Alaska moon rock mystery.
'A NEAT SOUVENIR'
After Riker's column, the state received a mysterious public-records request from Dan Harris, a lawyer in Seattle. Harris wanted all of the state's records on the transportation museum fire in 1973.
A few months after that, in December, a legal complaint was served on the State of Alaska. Harris was representing a man named Arthur C. Anderson. Anderson had Alaska's moon rock plaque, the complaint said.
According to the complaint, Anderson was a teenager at the time of the fire in 1973. Afterward, he went into the burned-out building while some garbage crews were cleaning up.
"While he was combing through the debris, plaintiff discovered the Plaque, which was covered by a thick layer of melted materials. Plaintiff thought it was 'cool' and that he might be able to clean it up and turn it into a neat souvenir."
And so he took it home.
"In 1973," the complaint went on, "The Plaque was widely considered not to have any real monetary value because it was assumed moon trips would soon become a nearly everyday occurrence."
The complaint said the state, by putting the plaque with the garbage, "relinquished ownership." Anderson found it and cleaned it up, and for that reason, it should be his.
Anderson wanted to be declared the official owner of the plaque, which would make it possible for him to sell it legally. If not, he wanted to be paid what it was worth.
'A LOT OF MYSTERY'
Guthienz and Riker weren't the only ones searching for Alaska's moon rocks. Alaska State Museum curator Steve Henrikson had been looking for them on and off since he was hired 21 years ago in Juneau. The story he pieced together didn't match Anderson's.
The last people to see the plaque, Henrikson said, were two museum employees who walked through the building after the fire. According to them, the moon rocks were intact, in a glass case. After that, museum staff discussed taking the plaque out of the burned-out area and putting it in a more secure part of the museum.
A few days later, a museum employee noticed it wasn't in the case. Instead there was just a clean square in the ash and dust where it had been sitting. She assumed Phil Redden, a museum curator, took it home for safe-keeping. But later, when he was asked, Redden denied it.
Shortly after the fire, the museum lost its funding and all the employees were let go, Henrikson said. That left the cleanup and inventory of the artifacts to employees in Juneau. It took them three years to go through everything. They kept expecting to find the moon rock plaque but they never did, Henrikson said.
"The museum staff didn't know who did what with it," Henrikson said. "There was just a lot of confusion around at the time, there was just a lot of mystery."
It was never reported stolen.
After the complaint was filed, Henrikson did some more digging and discovered two surprising facts. First, Arthur C. Anderson goes by Coleman Anderson. Coleman Anderson was a skipper of a Dutch Harbor fishing boat featured on the first season of Discovery Channel's "Deadliest Catch." Second, a man named Coleman Anderson is listed in the obituary for the transportation museum's last curator, Phil Redden. It says that Anderson was Redden's foster son.
Gutheinz, the NASA investigator, sent the Daily News a copy of the complaint. Sometimes media attention helps shake loose facts, he told me. I called Anderson's attorney, Harris, to get a better sense of it.
Harris told me that Anderson is a tugboat captain, but he would only tell me that he works somewhere in the United States. The plaque, he said, is in an undisclosed location in Asia. He confirmed that his client was also called Coleman Anderson and had been considered Redden's adoptive son or stepson.
Anderson, he said, decided to settle the issue of the plaque's ownership with the state after he read the news coverage.
The state didn't want the moon rocks, Harris said. It put them in the trash. It never reported them missing. Anderson picked them up and cared for them.
"They were in very bad condition, covered with soot and ashes. I think even some of the plastic had melted a bit," he said.
"Coleman cleaned them with, I think, toothpaste mostly."
But what was Anderson doing taking anything from the site of the fire? Wasn't that stealing?
"If Coleman Anderson stole these moon rocks," Harris said, "why would he be making this all public?"
Why not just give the plaque back?
It is Anderson's property now, Harris said, and the complaint wants a court to make it official.
"Why not give your house back to the state of Alaska?" Harris said.
Harris said that Anderson would sell the moon rocks -- back to the state, maybe in some kind of auction, at a reduced price.
"We're not going to just give them to state of Alaska for free," he said.
The state filed a counter-claim. The statute of limitations for theft has passed. But the state's civil claim says the rocks were wrongfully taken.
"The state's position is we owned these rocks, we always owned these rocks, and we did not abandon these rocks," said Neil Slotnick, an assistant attorney general handling the case.
There is so far no trial date.
Gutheinz's students have helped find rocks that were carted home by a diplomat's son, two governors and a senator. Those were all returned. He's never encountered anyone who thought they could sell the rocks back.
"I'm going, like, this is just bizarre. The guy that took the moon rocks is suing the state," he said.
"It's the ultimate in chutzpah."
Harris sent the photo of Alaska's moon rock plaque, used as part of the evidence in the case, to me so I could see what it looks like. When our photo department looked at it, a photographer noticed a note attached to the image file. It read "Korea 6-2010."
I tracked down a man named Coleman Anderson at an address in Texas. According to a public records search the same man once lived in Dutch Harbor. I left a message on his machine.
So far I haven't heard back.