Thief Steals Tarzan’s Swimming Hall of Fame Treasures, Police Bust Him

FORT LAUDERDALE, December 15. THIS morning's New York Times has a dramatic story by reporter Lynn Zinser on how an enterprising thief stole most of the Johnny Weissmuller collection at the International Swimming Hall of Fame, attempted to fence his ill-gotten goods, and was busted in a police sting. Weissmuller, better known as Tarzan to millions of movie-goers, is considered one of the greatest swimmers of the 20th century.

Here is Zinser's report:

"The tale of how the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., nearly lost the most valuable part of its memorabilia collection began with a scene straight out of a prime-time police drama. One night in early December, a maintenance worker noticed a glass display case sitting not quite right and called the curator over for a look.

"Only then did the hall of fame's officials realize that dozens of Olympic medals, trophies and lithographs – including a large collection donated by the swimming and Hollywood star Johnny Weissmuller when the museum opened in 1965 – had been stolen.

"'It's the worst nightmare of any hall of fame or any museum,' the collection's curator, Bob Duenkel, said in a telephone interview yesterday.

"The caper ended in fitting episodic television fashion: the police say they caught the bad guy in a sting, and most of the stolen items, including all of the Olympic medals, are on their way back to the museum. Duenkel estimated their total value at $400,000 to $500,000.

"Paul Nicholas Christow, 48, of Fort Lauderdale, faces charges of theft and trafficking in stolen goods. He had been filling in for his injured brother, a maintenance worker at the museum.

"Christow's brother, who is not named in the police report and is not accused of any role in the theft, had a broken leg, so Christow worked in his place for a few months.

"The police say that Christow stole the items over several weeks, then posed as a lawyer liquidating an estate and tried to sell them through a rare coins dealer in Hollywood, Fla.

"Christow had recently been released from prison and was on parole. Sgt. Andy Pallen, a Fort Lauderdale police spokesman, said Christow's criminal history included vehicular homicide, drug possession, assault, weapons possession, burglary and robbery.

"The police said his scheme unraveled after the coin dealer listed the stolen items on eBay, where he found an eager buyer in Jeffrey Ensminger, an Olympic memorabilia collector in Durham, N.C.

"Ensminger bought several items, including Weissmuller's gold medal for the 100-meter freestyle in the 1924 Olympics, but knew that all of Weissmuller's medals had been given to the hall of fame. So he contacted Duenkel, sent him pictures of what he had bought and asked if the museum was selling any more of its collection.

"'When I looked at the pictures, I said, 'That's our stuff,'" Duenkel said. "'Fortunately, he realized not just the value of it, but the historical value. These are things that belong for the public to see.'"

"Ensminger helped trace the sale to the coin dealer, Double Eagle Rare Coins in Hollywood, whose owner helped lure Christow back to the store. The police arrested him there on Thursday.

"With the help of Ensminger, who had already sold some of the items he had bought from Christow, most of the memorabilia has been tracked down. Duenkel says some silver cups and lithographs are still missing.

"Weissmuller, who went on to star as Tarzan in several movies, had always formed the backbone of the museum. He was an honorary board member and was the featured speaker when the museum opened. Until he died in 1984, he was a constant supporter.

"'He loved the hall of fame and everything for which it stood,' Duenkel said. 'That's why he left all his medals here.'"

Now, Duenkel is planning a major overhaul of the display, with improved security, and much relief all around.

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