Museum heist stuns Mariposa residents

Armed robbers still at large after stealing part of collection

09/29/2012 5:38 PM

10/01/2012 8:52 AM

MARIPOSA -- Residents here are reeling from Friday's armed robbery of the California State Mining and Mineral Museum, which resulted in the theft of about $2 million in gold and precious gems.

No one was hurt during the heist, but perpetrators threatened museum staff with weapons, according to park officials.

As of Sunday, no arrests had been reported.

"I'm horrified, absolutely horrified," said Mary Gentry, a Mariposa resident who just recently visited the museum. "It's a loss of things that can't be replaced."

Local resident Mike Quinn said he heard about the robbery by word of mouth after seeing a large number of law enforcement on Friday afternoon heading out to the Mariposa County Fairgrounds where the museum is located.

"It's a terrible thing to happen here. That was all special stuff. It took some brazen boys to walk in there like that, whoever they were."

Officials are in the process of taking an inventory to establish exactly what was stolen from the museum.

The incident was reported about 4 p.m. and at least two people were involved in the robbery, according to the California Highway Patrol, which is handling the investigation.

State parks officials said the robbers were armed and made threats to a guide and a curator before entering a vault at the museum and stealing the gems and gold. State Parks spokesman Roy Stearns said Sunday no park rangers were at the site when the robbery happened.

Stearns and the CHP had no additional details about the robbers on Sunday.

Several of the collection's larger pieces of gold reportedly were taken. However, it was unclear if the 201-ounce Fricot Nugget was part of the heist. The 13.8-pound specimen is the largest intact mass of crystalline gold from the Gold Rush era.

"I was shocked to see that something like that happened here," said Mike Aday, who recently moved with his wife from Dallas where he worked as an assistant museum curator. "We've only been here a week. I'm shocked and very disappointed. A lot of times, those things can't be recovered and they certainly can't be replaced."

Marilyn Johnson, owner of Our Country Home gift shop in Mariposa, said she was surprised to hear the news.

"Usually things like that don't happen here," she said. "This is just a regular little small town."

"I'm really sad about it," she added. "It's valuable as far as history goes. We lost a part of the history of this particular area."

The collection dates back to 1881 when it first was on display at the San Francisco Ferry Building. Then in 1983, the collection was moved to Mariposa. In 1991, the state Department of Parks and Recreation took over responsibility of the historical gems and minerals from the state Department of Conservation.

The museum has gone through some tough times recently. For months, local officials thought the museum, which is part of the State Parks system, would have to be closed due to budget cuts.

The museum closure was tabled after the Legislature approved additional funding for all state parks. That came in response to the discovery of about $54 million of previously unaccounted for state parks funds.

The CHP is asking anyone with information about the theft to call (209) 356-2900. Tips are kept confidential, and you can remain anonymous.

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or jsmith@mercedsunstar.com.

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