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A tale of two meteorites

Court battles drag on for Daniel Sabo, who is trying to prove federal authorities craftily made off with a “priceless” meteorite and…

Court battles drag on for Daniel Sabo, who is trying to prove federal authorities craftily made off with a “priceless” meteorite and replaced it with a fake.

Discovered by Sabo about 30 kilometres outside Mayo in the late 1980s, the “Mayo meteorite” is particularly distinctive for a series of “microbial life forms” that began to form on the stone after it was exposed to consistent, dry heat in the Arizona desert.

Proper sale of the stone to a collector would have been a life-changing financial boon for Sabo, who currently lives in Whitehorse while waiting for his court date.

The presence of halite crystals in the meteorite immediately “puts the meteorite in the $35,000- to $50,000-a-gram range,” he said.

In addition, the microbial life forms make the stone “priceless to science,” said Sabo, arguably launching the meteorite into an even higher price bracket.

“Meteorites, if they have anything unique or unusual about them, that ups the price on the collector’s market,” he said.

But he hasn’t seen his meteorite in almost a decade, he said.

The story begins in 1986, when Sabo, working as a placer miner, came across a strange, pitted chunk of mineral.

A year later, an examination by Vancouver laboratory Bondar Clegg determined the mineral was indeed a meteorite.

Sabo held onto the stone until 1996, when he brought it south to his parents’ home in Arizona with the intention of selling the stone to an American buyer.

However, after two years, and with the realization that it was illegal to sell a meteor out-of-country, Sabo drove south to retrieve the stone and bring it back to the Yukon.

While on the return trip, Sabo said he often handled the stone while driving, sometimes resting it in the crook of his elbow.

Two weeks after he returned, Sabo developed a rash on exactly the areas on his arm that the meteorite had touched.

“That rash, in a week, had spread to my wrist, and up to my shoulder. My arm swelled right up,” said Sabo.

“Have you ever seen pictures of people that have been stung by jellyfish? That’s what my arm looked like,” he said. “And I’ll tell you, my fuckin’ arm was on fire.”

Soon after, the meteorite started to develop mysterious growths of blues and greens with bulbous ends — growths that would later be referred to as “microbial life forms” by researchers, said Sabo.

“Every time you looked at it, those things would be in a different position. They would be moved, or there would be a different number of them. As it grew over the summer, they sort of weaved a crust around itself,” he said.

Soon after, in 1999, Sabo, who admits an interest in cutting and polishing rock, started finding a jade-like rock at the creek adjacent to his claim.

“It was something that I thought I could make a living from as far as making artwork,” he said.

Sabo travelled to Whitehorse to meet with Yukon Geological Survey geologist Charlie Roots to identify the source of the jade like rocks that he had been finding.

Roots pulled out a map and pointed to the exact location of where the jade-coloured rocks originated, said Sabo, recalling the meeting.

“I told him, if this rock turns out to be jade or jade-ite, I would consider making a deal (on the land) with the government for the meteorite,” he said.

Placing the meteorite in Roots’ care, Sabo set out on a prospecting trip to the area that Roots had indicated.

Ultimately, it proved a “wild goose chase,” said Sabo — who quickly found that the rock was not at Roots’ indicated location and, when Sabo did find it, it turned out not to be jade, but a cheap look-alike known as serpentine.

When Sabo returned, he found that Roots — without Sabo’s permission — had forwarded the meteorite to Ottawa, where it was in the care of Richard Herd, curator of the national collection of the Geological Survey of Canada.

Sabo quickly called for the stone’s return.

Also, he reminded the geological survey that, while a visual inspection was fine, he didn’t grant permission for the stone to be altered in any way, he said.

When it was returned, it had been stripped bare of the growths and, as Sabo would soon determine, it wasn’t even the actual meteorite.

It was a carefully sculpted replica, said Sabo.

“There was a vein of rock in the original meteorite — but in the one I got back, there was a completely different mineral altogether in that vein of rock,” he said.

“Right away red flags started going off, something was wrong with this.”

The replica business is nothing new to the geological survey.

In 1999, the finder of a meteorite at a Kitchener golf course was compensated for his discovery with a specially made meteorite replica.

But Sabo’s replica isn’t simply a hand-painted plaster casting.

Independent tests commissioned by Sabo at a laboratory in Arizona determined that the stone he received was indeed largely of meteoritic material, but had been sculpted from a larger piece, he said.

In addition, a separate mineral had been attached to the stone in order to bring it up to the weight of the original, said Sabo.

“(Meteorites) cut and break along unpredictable lines. Sculpting many meteorites would be a very tricky proposition, and sculpting an exact replica is not something I’ve heard anybody try to do,” said Carlton Allen, the astro-materials curator at NASA’s Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas.

Sabo said his meteorite also had a falsified “fusion crust,” a glass coating formed by the extreme heat caused by entering the Earth’s atmosphere.

Whereas the real fusion crust was composed of magnetite, Sabo’s meteorite had a fusion crust composed of aluminum — embedded with iron particles to simulate the magnetic properties of magnetite.

“A fusion crust is awfully hard to duplicate in a laboratory or in an industrial situation,” said Allen.

For Sabo, the smoking gun of the case is the disparity in weight between the replica and an alleged sample (“offcut”) taken by the geological survey from the meteorite.

Sabo took an offcut from the replica to compare to the original.

Even though the geological survey’s offcut is significantly larger than Sabo’s offcut, it weighed about half as much, he said.

On a visit to Ottawa, Sabo was shown the offcut taken by the geological survey.

“It was fucking bent, warped — it wouldn’t lay flat,” he said.

Previously, Sabo had accidentally been given photographic slides of the geological survey’s offcut.

The slides did not match the warped offcut he had been shown, said Sabo.

When he showed up the next day to confront the geological survey with the full-sized prints taken from the slides, he was immediately shown an offcut that matched the photos — with the distinct difference that it lay perfectly flat.

When Sabo reached to touch the offcut, it was abruptly snatched out of his reach by a lab assistant.

“Quick as a fucking snake,” he said.

Sabo can only speculate on where the original stone can be found, but he guesses that his meteorite is currently in the hands of NASA at the Johnson Space Centre.

Allen, who has worked with the Yukon’s famous Tagish Lake meteorite in the past, has never heard of it, he said.

But why the ruse?

Why would the geological survey work so hard to shrift Sabo out of a mere meteorite?

“They would not want to pay collector’s prices for a unique and valuable meteorite,” said Sabo.

At the moment, he’s in court to obtain a judgment allowing him to test the offcut that is currently in the custody of the geological survey.

“Even though I know it’s a fake, I can use it to prove that what I’ve got is a fake as well,” he said.

“Once the order is made to get that offcut, they know they’re fucked.”

Richard Herd could not be reached for comment. Charlie Roots is currently on a field expedition and was unavailable for comment.