Former exporter faces lawsuit over lunar rock

07/17/2002 12:00:00 AM
Tracy Rosselle

(July 18) PEMBROKE PINES, Fla. — A man who claims to be the first to export cantaloupes from Honduras to the U.S. in the mid-1960s is the leading character in an improbable story involving Richard Nixon, a Central American dictator and a moon rock.

Alan Rosen, a retiree living in Pembroke Pines, dabbled in the fresh produce business decades ago. For years he was in the processed juice business in Honduras. In the 1990s, while looking into further juice deals and possible export opportunities with rambutan and other tropical fruits, he was introduced to a retired military officer in that country who wanted to sell him a chunk of the moon.

The rambutan deal fell through, but Rosen wound up buying the moon rock for $20,000 and a truck valued at $10,000. In 1998, he tried to sell the rock to prospective buyers — who turned out to be federal agents. They didn’t arrest him, but they took his rock.

Now it’s at the center of a lawsuit: United States of America vs. One Lucite Ball Containing Lunar Material.

The rock, which could be worth as much as $5 million, was brought back to Earth by Apollo 17 astronauts and was subsequently mounted on a plaque and given by Nixon to Honduran dictator Gen. Osvaldo Lopez Arellano in 1973.

Rosen argues the rock is rightfully his. The lawsuit, in which the feds are suing the rock itself in what is known as a “forfeiture in rem,” asks a federal judge to determine the rightful owner — Rosen or the Republic of Honduras.

Rosen said it’s unlikely anyone in the fresh produce business today would recall his name. He said he can’t even remember the name of his company in the 1960s. But he said he shipped limes, yuca and melons from Central America under the No Rose brand.

The cantaloupe deal, which Rosen said he scraped together with little to work with, relied on DC-3s to airfreight the fruit to Miami and then on to New York City. It was a rudimentary effort and the quality upon arrival wasn’t great, but no other melons were available to U.S. buyers at the time, he said.

Rosen said his more recent interest in Honduran rambutan never got off the ground because the fruit wasn’t allowed into the U.S., and trying to work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture was like running into a brick wall.

“I would have started a company to export it if I could have set it up,” Rosen said.

Now more feds are putting up another brick wall. Customs agents seized the rock in 1998 because it wasn’t declared when Rosen brought it into the U.S., and pending the outcome of the lawsuit, they want to return it to the Honduran government.



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