For most of my thirty-one-year career with the FBI, I was assigned to the Ann Arbor office—what the bureau calls a “resident agency,” or RA. We were primarily responsible for investigating violations of federal law in five counties which had a total population of about a million people.
A good thing about working in an RA was that we dealt with a wide variety of cases—some of them truly unique.
In August 1998 I got a call from detective Kevin McNulty of the U-M Department of Public Safety. He told me that they had located a meteorite that had been stolen from the fourth floor of the U-M’s natural history museum a few days before. It weighed about sixty pounds and was worth about $10,000.
Apparently there was a good market for meteorites, especially ones from the Diablo Canyon crater, aka Barringer Crater, near Flagstaff, Arizona. That crater has gained a cult following among people who believe extraterrestrials have visited earth and may be still among us.
Because the Diablo Canyon crater is relatively young in Earth’s geological history, it still looks the way people think a crater should look: like the ones on the moon. In the 1984 movie Starman, an extraterrestrial, played by Jeff Bridges, tries to get there to rendezvous with a rescue craft from his home planet.
The stolen meteorite was one of two from Diablo Canyon in the museum’s collection. (The other weighed about 250 pounds, so it wasn’t going anywhere.) Both were fragments of a meteor that struck the Earth about 50,000 years ago. It is estimated that the meteor was about 100 feet in diameter, weighed about 60,000 tons, and was traveling at 30,000 mph when it hit. Most of it vaporized on impact, creating a hole almost 600 feet deep and about 3,900 feet across.
No humans witnessed the crater’s creation: that was almost 30,000 years before Homo sapiens arrived in the Americas. It entered recorded history in the sixteenth century, when the first Spanish explorers reached the area. Learning that the Native Americans who lived in the area considered the canyon cursed, they named it Diablo—“devil” in Spanish.
In the early 1900s, Daniel Barringer, a mining engineer who had made millions from silver mining in Arizona, took an interest in the crater. The prevailing scientific theory at the time was that the crater had resulted from volcanic activity, and the meteorite fragments around the crater were coincidental.
Barringer rightly deduced that the crater had been caused by a meteor impact. What he didn’t realize was that most of it had vaporized. Since the meteorites were composed of iron and nickel, he assumed that much more would be buried beneath the floor of the crater—potentially millions of dollars’ worth. Over several decades, he drilled numerous exploratory holes—some as deep as 1,400 feet—but never hit the mass he expected. (Nor did he discover an alien spacecraft.)
Barringer died disappointed, but his children made the crater a profitable tourist attraction. It’s still owned by his descendants.
No one witnessed the theft of the meteorite, and at the time no surveillance cameras were in the area. But the director of the museum’s planetarium put a photo and description of the meteorite on the internet, and a New York rock dealer named Michael Casper saw them. He contacted the museum and confirmed that a meteorite he had purchased was the one that had been stolen.
The museum informed the Department of Public Safety. McNulty brought me in because he was concerned Casper might not cooperate, and he had no police power in New York.
I agreed to call Casper, who turned out to be very cooperative. He understood that he was in possession of stolen property and that his continued possession of it was potentially a violation of federal law. He said he’d bought it from a man who gave the name Steven Collins, with an address in Pittsfield Township.
As Casper related it, Collins had called and told him he had a sixty-pound Diablo Canyon meteorite for sale. Casper agreed to purchase it for $2,300. When Collins delivered the meteorite, they agreed that the dealer would pay $1,000 in cash, and trade an ancient crab fossil and a 200-pound slab of amethyst (purple quartz) for the rest.
Both McNulty and I assumed that the name and address that had been provided to Casper were false. But there really was a Steven Collins living at the address he’d provided. Collins had been convicted of second-degree murder in Michigan, had served time, and was currently on parole. That could provide some leverage when dealing with him.
McNulty made contact with Collins, and he readily admitted that he had sold the meteorite to Casper. Collins said he had run into a guy he had met in prison, and the guy had offered to sell him a meteorite that he said he had found in Arizona. He paid the guy a few hundred dollars knowing the meteorite was worth much more. Collins claimed he didn’t know the meteorite was stolen. Collins gave the name of the inmate, but no one by that name could be found in the Michigan Department of Corrections records.
Although McNulty doubted Collins’ story, he didn’t have enough evidence to prosecute him for the theft from the museum.
I thought we might be able to prosecute Collins federally for interstate transportation of stolen property, but to do that, we needed him to admit that he knew the meteorite was stolen. I believed Collins had stolen the meteorite himself, but I was pretty sure he wasn’t going to admit to that. However, sometimes a bad denial can be almost as good as a confession.
I wanted to interview Collins again, and I wanted it to be a surprise. I didn’t want to give him time to prepare or, worse, decide he didn’t want to talk to me.
He was working for a construction company testing a cleared and graded site for the level of compaction of the soil—a good job for a self-described rock hound. I approached him there and told him that we were having some trouble with his original story, because no inmate by the name he had given had ever been in the Michigan prison system.
Collins changed his story: He said he’d actually bought it from a guy he met in a bar. He originally said it was a fellow inmate because he couldn’t admit to having been in a bar—that was a violation of his parole. (I didn’t mention that having left Michigan and traveling to New York without permission was also a parole violation.)
In the bar, he said, he struck up a conversation with a guy about rocks. The guy seemed to be pretty knowledgeable, and he said he had a meteorite that he wanted to sell. They went to the guy’s car, and in the trunk was a large meteorite that the guy said had come from Diablo Canyon. Collins knew that it was a meteorite and had some idea of its value. He agreed to buy it for $400. He said he’d paid in cash and had no documentation of the sale.
Collins claimed that he didn’t know the guy’s name or have any contact information for him. He hadn’t seen him before or since. He also hadn’t noticed whether the car’s license plate was from Michigan or another state, and was only able to give a very general description of the guy. Collins told me the name of the bar but said he didn’t know any of the employees or patrons there who could corroborate any part of his story.
Collins had not only changed his story when it was challenged, he had provided what I thought was a pretty weak new story as to how he acquired the meteorite—a bad denial.
Collins was federally charged with interstate transportation of stolen property. He’d also violated his parole by leaving Michigan. He pleaded guilty and admitted to the judge he knew the meteorite was stolen when he transported it to New York. He was sentenced to nine months in addition to about two years for parole violation.
Det. McNulty personally returned the stolen meteorite to the museum. Since they still had the larger Diablo Canyon meteorite, director Amy Harris emails, they later traded the smaller one “for a collection of smaller meteorites that had greater educational value to us than having two meteorites from the same impact site.”
The larger meteorite is now displayed in the museum’s new home in the university’s biological sciences building. McNulty and I saw it there recently. We never did learn how Collins got the other one out of the old building without being seen.
Stejskal is the author of FBI Case Files Michigan: Tales of a G-Man. A version of this article was previously published on TickleTheWire.com.