SEATTLE -- Coleman Anderson wants to keep his little piece of the moon. Whether he does will depend on the outcome of an unusual lawsuit playing out in an Alaska court.
Anderson, perhaps best recognized as captain of the fishing vessel Western Viking during the first season of the hit Discovery Channel series "Deadliest Catch," is asking a judge to let him keep a lunar rock presented to the state of Alaska in 1969 by President Richard Nixon, but missing for nearly 37 years.
Anderson, who claims he found the rock in debris following a fire at an Anchorage museum in 1973, said he's had it as a keepsake ever since.
Anderson's effort has run afoul of the state of Alaska, as well as a retired NASA investigator who has made it a life's mission to track down all of the 230 moon rocks presented by the U.S. to governments around the world following the Apollo 11 and 17 lunar missions.
Joe Gutheinz, a former senior investigator for NASA's Office of Inspector General and now an attorney near Houston, Texas, said it appears that more than half of those rocks are missing, destroyed or otherwise unaccounted for.
"I firmly believe that to honor the memory of the 17 astronauts who died in furtherance of our space effort, and the 12 individuals who walked on the moon, that the appropriate place for a moon rock or dust is in a museum and not in private hands," said Gutheinz, who while an agent for NASA in 1998 went undercover to recover the Honduras Goodwill moon rock, which was being offered on the black market for $5 million.
From a mineral standpoint, the moon rocks are virtually worthless. However, black-market collectors have been willing to pay large sums for the rocks, and there have been efforts over the years by scam artists to sell bogus moon rocks.
Gutheinz teaches a criminal-justice course at the University of Phoenix, where he assigns the task of trying to find moon rocks, to sharpen students' investigative skills.
To date, they've located 70 of them. Some had been misplaced, a few stolen. Three state governors accidentally took their state's rocks home after leaving office. Still, Gutheinz said, his students have found that 160 of the rocks remain missing, lost, stolen or destroyed.
Washington's moon rock is safe in the state's historical archives, according to the Washington State Historical Society.
One of Gutheinz's students, Elizabeth Riker, was assigned to find the Alaska rock. Her investigation dead-ended at the Anchorage museum fire. In an August 2010 article published in the Capital City Weekly in Anchorage, she called for the state to renew efforts to find the rock. Anderson filed his lawsuit four months later.
Alaska has since filed a counterclaim, alleging that Anderson took the rock without permission. Assistant Alaska Attorney General Neil Slotnick said the state will ask for its return, as well as damages.
"Our astronauts and their descendants are not permitted to have an Apollo 11-era moon rock to sell for their own enrichment and neither should a private citizen who acquired one in a less-noble manner," Gutheinz said.
Anderson, 55, who now lives in Corpus Christi, Texas, claims in his lawsuit that he wound up with the rock after it was discarded in trash following a 1973 arson at the Alaska Transportation Museum in Anchorage.
The rock -- several small fragments, actually -- is encased in clear plastic and mounted on a wooden plaque. Presented by Nixon to then-Alaska Gov. Keith Miller, it was presumed destroyed until Anderson filed his lawsuit last December.
A telephone call to Anderson's home on Thursday was answered by a girl who identified herself as his daughter. She said he was out to sea fishing and unavailable for several days.
After the museum fire and cleanup, garbage trucks were sent in to haul off the remaining debris, and Anderson claims he was combing through it when he discovered the plaque, which was coated with 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 great souvenir," according to the complaint. The lawsuit said Anderson left with the plaque in full view of the garbage-removal workers.
"In 1973," Harris wrote in the lawsuit, "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."
Harris notes the state never filed a loss claim for the rock, and argues in the lawsuit that the state relinquished any interest in the rock when it instructed the garbage crews to haul away the debris from the museum fire "after meticulously searching through the debris for all objects it wished to salvage," the lawsuit alleges.
In the alternative, Anderson is asking that he be reimbursed by the state because he "rescued the plaque from destruction" and "expended considerable time and resources restoring" it.
Anderson's plaque has not been authenticated. However, Gutheinz reviewed an undated photograph provided to The Seattle Times by Harris, who said it was taken by Anderson. He said it appears to be the real deal, "right down to the irregular way the state flag was affixed to the plaque."
Gutheinz also pointed out that the wooden plaque shows no sign of fire damage.
Gutheinz believes the moon rocks are more important now than ever, as they represent the faded dream of manned interplanetary spaceflight that drove the Apollo program.
"Coleman Anderson has something that represents more than just dust locked away in Lucite," he said. "He has in his clutches a piece of the greatness of America... It may be hard for Mr. Anderson to give up a piece of the moon. But he should do it."