April 4th, 2007 09:28 EST
Apollo 13 Astronaut’s Medal Recovered by FBI
When an explosion rocked the Apollo 13 lunar module in 1970, scuttling a moon landing and endangering three astronauts on board—an event that riveted the nation and tested the resolve and ingenuity of the U.S. space program—the mission’s onboard commander, Captain James A. Lovell Jr., famously said, “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”
Earlier this year, Captain Lovell, a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom for safely bringing Apollo 13 and its crew home, was in touch with our FBI office in Chicago to report a new problem: the Medal of Freedom originally cast for him, but replaced due to a defect prior a 1970 presentation ceremony, was up for bid on an Internet auction site.
The defective medal was supposed to have been destroyed long ago, but it apparently slipped out of the White House, eventually falling into the hands of a private collector in Pennsylvania. When Captain Lovell learned the medal bearing his name was up for auction, he worried the sale might sully the reputation of the rare decoration, one of the nation’s highest civilian awards.“He was upset by the fact that it might diminish the medal itself,” said Special Agent Brian Brusokas, who works in the Cyber Crimes Unit in our Chicago office and opened the investigation.
The posting on the auction site touted that the medal was the “original” version meant for the Captain Lovell and called it “the ultimate collector’s item.” It read, in part: “This original medal was destined for the trash but lucky for us it was saved 37 years ago.”
Agent Brusokas quickly identified the seller and last month recovered the medal and its accessories, including the wooden storage box bearing the presidential seal. The medal’s authenticity was verified by the White House.
Since the medal still technically belongs to the White House, the collector’s possession of it amounts to theft of government property. No arrests have been made and no charges have been filed, but the investigation is continuing. The actual medal presented to Captain Lovell by President Nixon is still in his possession.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom was established in 1945 to honor service in World War II and was revived in 1963 to recognize distinguished civilian service. Captain Lovell and fellow crewmen John L. Swigert Jr. and Fred W. Haise Jr. received the honor on April 18, 1970, a day after arriving home and just seven days after Apollo 13 launched en route to the moon. An oxygen tank exploded a few days into the mission, causing the crew and managers on the ground to abort the moon landing and improvise a safe journey back to Earth. Lovell’s role in the heroic saga was dramatized by Tom Hanks in the 1995 movie “Apollo 13.”
This isn’t the first time the FBI has been brought in to help recover a medal. In 2003, three Congressional Medals of Honor wound up on an Internet auction. Cyber agents in our Buffalo office tracked down the seller in Canada and recovered the medals, which were more than 100 years old.
The sale of a Presidential Medal of Freedom isn’t illegal or unprecedented. Actor James Cagney’s medal, awarded to him in 1984, was auctioned in 2000 for $51,000. The difference in this case is that the Pennsylvania dealer didn’t own the medal. “It’s legal,” said Agent Brusokas, “only if you have good title to it.”
In the end, we’re proud to have played a role in upholding the integrity of the Presidential Medal of Freedom for Captain Lovell and for all the winners of this prestigious American honor.