TRENTON — If $5 million worth of moon rocks happen to be junking up your home, could you give New Jersey State Police a call? Detectives will arrive at, well, warp speed to reclaim state property — and solve a 35-year-old mystery.
The rocks were supposed to go on public display starting in 1976, when an astronaut presented the governor's office with goodwill tokens of Apollo 17, the last manned lunar landing.
But last year, researchers, curators and former Gov. Brendan Byrne told The Record they had no idea where the gift went.
Now, state police confirm they are looking for leads on the rocks, whose estimated black-market value is $5 million.
"We're certainly going to lend our investigative expertise on the matter and see what shakes loose," said Sgt. Stephen Jones, a spokesman for the police. "We're going to assist by having our state police detectives aware of the incident and assist in whatever ways they can. I don't want to classify it as an investigation."
The Record's initial moon rock story ran in newspapers throughout the country last spring. Since then, officials in Colorado, Missouri, West Virginia and North Carolina have located their rocks: two in the possession of ex-governors, one in the office of a university professor and another in the garage of a retired dentist.
The inquiry began this month at the suggestion of Joseph Gutheinz of Houston, a retired NASA investigator who has spent several years tracking the Apollo 17 gifts awarded by order of President Richard Nixon to 136 countries and each U.S. state.
Gutheinz now teaches a University of Phoenix class in forensic investigation and often assigns his students the task of confirming the relics' locations. At the most recent count, 92 countries and 10 states — including New Jersey — couldn't account for their shares of Sample 70017, according to CollectSpace.com, which catalogs such artifacts.
The shards, gray and jagged, resemble fireplace ash. The New Jersey bits weigh just over 1 gram, or about 1/28th of an ounce.
The value lies in their rareness.
NASA houses 75 percent of its lunar rock and soil samples in a specially built lab in New Mexico, where the inventory is bathed in nitrogen, monitored for oxygen and moisture content and never touched by bare hands. The rest are on loan for scientific study or display — or missing.
In 2009, the Rijksmuseum in the Netherlands confirmed that one of its rocks was a fake and not an artifact collected by the Apollo 11 crew. In a 1998 NASA sting, Gutheinz helped to recover a rock presented to Honduras, for which a Miami collector wanted $5 million.
Gutheinz insisted that New Jersey locate its rocks in a letter this month faxed to the state attorney general's office.
"Had a stapler been taken from the governor's office, I believe there would have been a greater effort to find that item than the state's Apollo 17 Goodwill Moon Rock, an item of immense economic and historical value," he wrote. "It is my hope that New Jersey opens a criminal investigation to try to find its property, and I would begin by asking former governors and their families, as well as their staffs, about it."
Gutheinz said he waited for months to ask for an investigation because he had hoped that New Jersey would take the initiative, particularly as the rocks resurfaced elsewhere.
"Investigators should do due diligence and ask former governors, their staffs and families," Gutheinz said in a phone interview. "They should ask, 'Did you have it in your office when you were governor?' and if they say they didn't, go to the previous governor and keep tracing it backwards until it's a hot potato, and finally one of the governors will either have it or know where it is now. Very well if you go to their house, it's on the wall or in their papers."
Jones declined to say how many state police detectives are working on the case, or whether they planned to speak to Byrne or Charles Carella, his one-time chief of staff. The two are law partners in Roseland.