The exhibit that showcased the golden lunar space module, which was taken from the Armstrong Air and Space Museum late Friday night, has been covered up as multiple entities are investigating the theft of the rare artifact. STAFF/STEVE BAKER
Photo: STEVE BAKER
Photo: STEVE BAKER

Armstrong museum thief took more than gold replica, police say

Multiple law enforcement agencies involved in criminal investigation.

The thief who took a solid-gold lunar space module replica from Armstrong Air and Space Museum late Friday night also took other artifacts, Wapakoneta police revealed Monday.

Medals, ribbons and presentation coins are also missing, police said, all stolen from the same exhibit. The exhibit showcased 25 artifacts from Neil Armstrong’s world tour, which he and fellow Apollo 11 astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins took after returning from their mission in 1969.

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“We’re incredibly disappointed in the event, that somebody would take an item like this and would rob a museum, and would take cultural items away from the public,” Armstrong museum Executive Director Chris Burton said Monday. “Our greatest concern is that the object is returned in as near-perfect condition as can be at this point, so that future generations can get an opportunity to enjoy it.”

Wapakoneta police said that evidence at the museum revealed that entrance was made, “by force,” to the front of the museum. Evidence revealed that more than one person was involved in the theft, although entry to the museum was likely made by just one person.

Police responded to a call of a burglary alarm at the museum at 11:59 p.m. on Friday, arriving after the items had been stolen. Police said that “surveillance camera footage did not yield much in terms of a description of the suspect that gained entry.”

The FBI and Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation are assisting Wapakoneta police, and the museum is now conducting an investigation of its own — a security review to figure out how it happened and what else could attract thieves.

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“We’re looking to see what other things might be targeted, and given what we know of this plan of attack, how else something else might be targeted in a similar fashion,” Burton said. “I’m not going to get into any specifics on our security measures, other than to say that they exist and things did work properly for this event.”

Burton called the theft “incredibly disappointing,” and said it was the first he has seen at the museum in his seven-plus years as director.

Armstrong, born in Wapakoneta, was the first person to step onto the moon’s surface in 1969. He died in 2012.

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Before Wapakoneta police issued its press release Monday afternoon, initial reports indicated that only one item had been stolen: the five-inch high, solid-gold lunar module replica.

The tour exhibit showcased the replica and other artifacts, including keys to the city, medals and trophies. Although the module replica is one of just three in existence, Burton said that the item — and exhibit — are not centrally featured in the museum.

“We didn’t treat it like the moon rock, where it has a case all by itself in the center of the room,” Burton said of the module replica.

Burton did not know why the replica or other tour artifacts were targeted.

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“I don’t know,” Burton said. “I guess that’s probably something that only the criminal could tell us.”

Ex-NASA agent Joseph Gutheinz Jr. told the Associated Press that whoever stole the gold replica likely intends to melt it down for the value of the gold instead of trying to sell what could be a collectible worth millions of dollars.

Gutheinz Jr., who has helped recover stolen moon rocks worth millions of dollars, noted the thief left behind a moon rock from the Apollo 11 mission. The museum rock is much larger than other rocks given or loaned to museums or foreign countries and one that could easily be smuggled out of the country, where a geologist could verity its authenticity.

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He said a moon rock would be worth millions of dollars to a collector.

“Either they didn’t have easy access to the moon rock, or they weren’t into collectibles,” Gutheinz said. “They were into turning a quick buck.”

Cartier, a French luxury jeweler, designed the gold module replica that was stolen from the exhibit. This news organization placed calls to Cartier to try to determine the worth of the stolen replica.

Burton said that he could not estimate the monetary value of the stolen artifacts.

“We don’t really deal in monetary value, we deal in historical value,” Burton said. “So, the historical value is great. In terms of the monetary value, that’s not really something that we’re concerned with.”

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Since the theft, Burton said that the museum has received emails from people “all over North America, just letting us know either that they’re thinking of us, they’re praying for us, or that they’re commiserating.”

“There’s been a lot of support shown from people within the community and then people from outside the community who have no personal connection, no geographic connection, but just feel that this was something that connected to them,” Burton said. “They’ve expressed their support through social media or in person, or in emails.”

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