On June 1, 1937, a Miami Herald photographer arrived at the Miami Municipal Airport to document the most famous female adventurer in national history. Amelia Earhart was in town on the fourth leg of her doomed trip across the globe. The image the photographer snapped wasn’t much to look at — just a plane resting on the tarmac as dawn’s light punched through a darkened sky. So it’s no wonder the picture remained forgotten for decades — until it suddenly reemerged this July and rekindled one of the most enduring mysteries in American history: What happened to Amelia Earhart?

The image had a very unusual detail, unique among thousands of pictures of Earhart’s aircraft. On the rear of the plane was a patch of shiny metal a shade lighter than rest of the plane’s exterior. “Could it be a clue — the clue — to what happened when Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan vanished somewhere over the trackless Pacific Ocean three months later?” the Miami Herald asked.

This was the final bit of information prolific Earhart sleuth Ric Gillespie had been waiting for to finally substantiate suspicions he has harbored for decades. He doesn’t think Earhart ran out of gas over the Pacific Ocean and crashed and sank, as others contend. He thinks she and her navigator made it miles beyond their last confirmed position to arrive at the uninhabited Gardner Island, where they starved to death. This unearthed picture was important, he said. It appeared to match an otherwise unusual metal fragment recovered from the island.

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This week, he claimed he proved the connection. “During Amelia Earhart’s stay in Miami at the beginning of her second world flight attempt, a custom-made, special window on her Lockheed Electra aircraft was removed and replaced with an aluminum patch,” wrote Gillespie, the director of an Earhart search organization called Tighar, which Gillespie at one point ran out of his garage. ” … The patch was as unique to her particular aircraft as a fingerprint to an individual. Research has now shown that a section of aircraft aluminum Tighar found on [the island] in 1991 matches that fingerprint in many cases.”

The news boomed across the Internet, with Discovery News and the History Channel all but declaring the Earhart mystery finally cracked. But when it comes to Earhart’s disappearance, in which every matter is hotly contested, nothing is that simple. Gillespie’s conclusion, neither academic nor peer-reviewed, is based on comparing the metal fragment found on Gardner Island to a model replica of the Electra.

Their investigation unfurled as follows: The team huddled around a clipboard, pictures show. Then they held the metal fragment against the interior of the plane where they think the hole in Earhart’s plane might have been. It appeared to be a perfect fit, but could they be sure? “Because the artifact is necessarily several inches closer to the camera than the skin of the aircraft, it appears to be a bit too big to fit,” the team wrote in their analysis. “That’s an illusion.”

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Though the new findings are indeed intriguing, it may not be enough to convince longtime adherents of alternate theories regarding Earhart’s disappearance. “Rick’s going back to his old piece of metal again,” Elgin Long, an 86-year-old U.S. Navy air combat veteran and air accident investigator who spent 40 years’s investigating the matter, told The Washington Post in March. ” … You’ll never convince true believers that they aren’t right. You’re just confusing them with facts.”

The ongoing drama over the metal fragment hints at the longtime clash of wills and theories between Long, who authored a book purporting to show Earhart crashed at sea and sank, and Gillespie, who thinks she starved to death on Gardner Island. To Gillespie, Long is “the patron saint of the crashed-and-sank school,” and he published a full takedown of Long’s book. “Rather than reach a conclusion which flows logically from the evidence, Long began where most researchers hope to end,” Gillespie wrote.

Then there’s a third character in the lengthy feud: money. Gillespie’s scheduled search this fall was “postponed due to a lack of funding,” according to History. And he now wants more money to venture back to Gardner Island, since renamed Nikumaroro, for another look-see.

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He thinks the Electra was “torn apart” and now lurks in fragments along the underwater reef slope off the island’s shore. His team has already trolled those waters twice — and found nothing. But now, after someone on team Tighar “spotted an unusual feature in the sonar imagery,” he reiterated this week the plane is down there, 600 feet beneath the surface.

“The new research on [the metal fragment] may reinforce the possibility that the anomaly is the rest of the aircraft,” he wrote. “The artifact is not, as previously suspected, a random fragment from an aircraft shredded by the surface.”

So Gillespie, with the release of his new research, has gone into fundraising mode. His team is slated to return to the island in 2015 to finally put this mystery to bed once and for all. As he told Discovery News: “Funding is being sought, in part, from individuals who will make a substantial contribution in return for a place on the expedition team.” He added: “Is the anomaly the aircraft? The only way to know is to look.”

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