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ST. LOUIS • Tim Heitz knows a meteorite when he sees one. The self-titled Midwest Meteorman has been collecting the space rocks ever since he saw a feature about them on the Discovery Channel more than 15 years ago.

"When you have them come through your hands, you can see them, feel them, touch them, and smell them, you know what meteorites are supposed to look like," Heitz said.

So when a man contacted Heitz on Dec. 19 and sent him a picture of a meteorite he claimed was from his father's rock collection, Heitz knew it was the real thing. What he said he didn't know was that this meteorite was stolen.

The iron-nickel meteorite had been taken from the Meteorite Museum at the University of New Mexico's Institute of Meteoritics in Albuquerque, N.M.

The meteorite, a 4.6 billion-year-old rock that was once part of the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, crashed to Earth in Siberia in 1947. The meteorite is about half the size of a basketball and weighs about 21 pounds. But two weeks passed before anyone even knew it was missing.

On New Year's Day, the museum's director, Carl Agee, was leading a collector on a tour of the museum. When he got to the case that was supposed to hold the meteorite, donated by a Russian scientist in the midst of the Cold War, Agee discovered the case was empty.

He alerted university police, but he also turned to a less Earth-focused authority: Anne Black, vice president of the International Meteorite Collectors Association.

Black posted a picture of the meteorite on the group's website, where 340 collectors from around the world trade tidbits about the chunks of extraterrestrial matter.

By the next morning, Agee had an email in his inbox from a collector who said he knew where Agee's stolen meteorite was.

A week earlier, on Christmas Eve, Heitz received the meteorite, shipped to him in a beat-up box. He wired the seller $1,700, then asked a South Carolina-based collector to appraise the meteorite.

That collector told Heitz the meteorite he bought for $1,700 was actually worth $18,000.

But when the collector later saw a picture of the stolen meteorite, he recognized it and emailed Agee.

"We were thrilled," Agee told the Post-Dispatch. "In 24 hours we went from the depths of despair, having this beautiful specimen gone from our display, to knowing its whereabouts."

Last Friday, Heitz met Lee Ann Lloyd, a museum assistant, at the St. Louis Airport Marriott to return the meteorite. Heitz had offered to ship it back to Albuquerque, but Agee wasn't taking any chances.

"I was getting so concerned about the whole thing, the possibility of it getting lost," Agee said.

Lloyd even carried the meteorite with her on the plane. She contacted the Transportation Security Administration beforehand, but it still caused some excitement when she took it through airport security.

"It was a little bit of an event," Agee said. "People were coming over to look at it."

He said university police are still collecting evidence on the man suspected of stealing the meteorite.

Heitz, a retired Chrysler electrician who lives in Fenton with his wife, said he's glad the meteorite is back to its rightful owner, even if his collection is down by one and, he suspects, he's out the $1,700 he paid for it.

But the Midwest Meteorman doesn't want to be called a hero.

"I don't have a big ego," he said. "I just like what I do."

He's already on to his next transaction. A 60-pound meteorite from Paraguay is on its way to him now.

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