State and federal investigators have joined local authorities to search for several historic artifacts that once belonged to astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the moon. Among the missing items is an 18-karat gold replica of the Eagle lunar module that shuttled Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin during their historic mission to the moon's surface on July 20, 1969.
Thieves also made off with rare medals, coins and other heirlooms from the astronauts' subsequent world tour.
“Everybody's real surprised,” said Tom Wehrhahn, managing editor of the Wapakoneta Daily News. “People here are saddened and just hoping for the best. We're extremely proud of Neil Armstrong, and everything in the museum is cherished by the community.”
Located 60 miles north of Dayton, Wapakoneta is Armstrong's birthplace. The museum, which is owned by the state, opened in 1972 — three years to the day after the Apollo 11 commander told NASA mission control, “that's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Authorities say there were multiple perpetrators, although they've been unable to identify them. Surveillance video released by police Monday night shows little more than a gray blur.
The heist occurred just before midnight, when one burglar attempted to make a surgical entry by picking a lock on the museum's front door, Mayor Thomas Stinebaugh told the Wapakoneta Daily News. An alarm was triggered, but the thieves had enough time to swipe the keepsakes before police arrived.
On Tuesday, as the investigation entered its fourth day, Wapakoneta Safety Service Director Chad Scott confirmed to The Washington Post that the thieves sought to leave a light footprint and appeared to know precisely what they wanted, concentrating on a single exhibit. The matter remains under investigation, he said. But nothing at the museum was damaged during the burglary, Scott said, adding: “They didn't go in and ransack the place.”
There's concern the burglars intend to melt down the lunar module statue and sell the gold. Chris Burton, the museum's executive director, cringes at that thought. He declined to estimate the missing items' monetary value, saying their significance to all of humanity essentially renders them priceless.
"Until Saturday morning, I had no idea what the price of gold was per ounce," he told The Post. "It's just not something we deal with; it's not something we're interested in. We talk about historic value. This exhibit was about these explorers coming back victorious from their mission and embarking on a world tour. That's why you have keys to cities. That's why you have tributes from Peru and from Paris, tributes from India, from Afghanistan. This wasn't just an American accomplishment, it was an accomplishment for the entire world."
The lunar module replica, five inches tall, had been displayed on the museum's top floor, according to Wehrhahn's report in the Wapakoneta Daily News. It was one of three made by French jeweler Cartier and presented to the Apollo 11 crew — Armstrong, Aldrin and Michael Collins — by enthralled readers of Le Figaro newspaper upon the trio's visit to Paris in October 1969.
Collins's family auctioned his in 2003, collecting $56,000, Wehrhahn reported.
Armstrong died in 2012 at the age of 82, but his legacy looms large in Wapakoneta, Scott said. The community is hopeful, he said, that authorities will be able to recover what was taken.
“This is very disappointing,” he said. “He grew up here. He put our city on the map. Hopefully the evidence we collect at the scene will lead us to an arrest.”