Still on the hunt for the missing moon rock

A Texas attorney is holding out hope that a long-missing piece of the moon still may be found somewhere in Delaware.

Joseph R. Gutheinz Jr. has made it his calling to find lunar samples from the Apollo missions, samples that, despite their rarity and historic importance, seem to have disappeared.

Delaware’s sample of the lunar surface, several small pieces of rock collected during the July 1969 Apollo 11 mission, vanished almost 42 years ago. President Richard M. Nixon had presented the samples to Gov. Russ Peterson Dec. 3, 1969. The governors of the 49 other states also received bits of lunar soil; the United States provided additional samples to the governments of 135 other nations.

Gutheinz is offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to its return.

The pebbles were taken Sept. 22, 1977 from a display at the former Delaware State Museum at 316 S.ernors Av Gove. The samples, weighing about 50 milligrams, were encased in a ball of transparent plastic and mounted on a display that included a small Delaware flag astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin had carried with them to the moon.

A surprising number of those gifted lunar samples also have turned up missing, Gutheinz said.

Inadequate security

Gutheinz, a former senior special agent and investigator for NASA, said Delaware’s Apollo 11 sample could be worth at least $5 million, but since it is illegal to sell lunar material, the thief only could dispose of it on the black market.

To date, he and a cadre of criminal justice students from a nearby college have tracked down 78 missing samples. Some were stolen, others simply misplaced, he said.

Only two samples remain missing from the group Nixon handed out in 1971 –  belonging to New York and Delaware.

According to a report prepared the day after the theft, the sample was on display in an upstairs room at 8:30 a.m. but was missing when the museum closed at 4:15 p.m. Eleven people had visited the museum that day but only one, a man, did not sign the visitor’s log.

Two nails from the plaque were found on the museum floor.

In a memo, Museum Director Michael S. Shapiro later said, “The theft illustrated the long-standing and inadequate security procedures at the State Museum facility.” Suggested improvements included checking personal belongings and better ways of observing people in the museum. There were no surveillance cameras.

Gutheinz recently obtained a copy of the Dover Police Department report of the investigation and was shocked to find the lunar samples and Delaware flag were valued at only $20.

Because of that low estimate, Gutheinz thinks investigators then saw little reason to dig deeper.

“They did not indicate in their report that witness statements were taken, that the names on the visitor’s log were contacted, or that fingerprints were dusted for or obtained from the case or stand,” he said.

The state apparently is taking no chances when it comes to a second lunar sample, collected during the Apollo 17 mission and presented in 1977. It’s kept under lock and key at a state warehouse.

Some rewarding incentives

Other questions, such as whether the theft was an inside job or just a crime of opportunity, remain unanswered, Gutheinz said.

He has some thoughts along that line. The fact an unknown man did not sign the museum log book could indicate that if he were the thief, the crime was planned in advance, Gutheinz said.

Gutheinz still is offering $10,000 of his own money for return of Delaware’s lunar sample. In addition, he is offering a lunar rock collecting practice bag, used during training for the Apollo 12 crew and bits of meteorites from the moon and Mars.

And although the Delaware Department of Justice can’t say if there still could be criminal charges levied after more than four decades, Gutheinz also is offering free legal representation in the event the government questions how any recovered samples were taken or kept throughout the years.

Anyone who may have information on the missing Apollo 11 samples can contact Gutheinz at joe@gutheinz.com.