Lost Belle Isle lighthouse lens stuck in court tug of war

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Detroit — A modern-day treasure hunter has defied the federal government by refusing to surrender rare lighthouse lenses, including one that disappeared from Belle Isle decades ago, according to federal court records.

The records chronicle the ongoing fight between the government and a treasure hunter, chart the winding, black-market path of lighthouse lenses worth approximately $600,000 and detail the government’s decades-long hunt to recover artifacts that were once discarded like trash.

Antique hunter Steven Gronow, a real-estate developer and former auto parts baron who lives in a lighthouse-shaped mansion near Howell, had escalated a two-year legal battle by refusing to relinquish the artifacts despite U.S. District Judge Mark Goldsmith ordering he surrender the two-foot-tall, beehive-shaped lenses earlier this year.

Instead, Gronow last month stood up U.S. Coast Guard officials and a rare lens expert — known as a lampist — who was hired to secure the artifacts in specially-designed crates. When they arrived at Gronow’s 9,825-square-foot estate, Gronow was gone, leaving the lampist and Coast Guard officials outside the gates, speaking in vain through a squawk box with the antique hunter’s wife. 

On Monday, Gronow faced a stern judge who ordered him to surrender the lenses by early February or risk having federal agents forcibly enter his home, and face unpleasant options, including fines and jail.

"There's an easy way and a hard way to do this," the judge told a jeans-clad Gronow.

Gronow didn't fight the order but expressed bewilderment that he ended up in a federal courtroom after devoting his life to preserving pieces of maritime history.

"These essentially were thrown in the trash 70 years ago," Gronow told the judge. "And after not caring for 75 years, I'm sued."

The judge's order moved the public closer to being able to view the century-old Belle Isle lens for the first time in more than 80 years.

"If it becomes something that is more or less accessible to the public for viewing, that would be a good thing," said John Polacsek, retired curator of the Dossin Great Lakes Museum on Belle Isle.

The mystery surrounding the lens dates to the late 1930s, when the lens was moved from inside the Belle Isle lighthouse on the southeast tip of the island.

Belle Isle Lighthouse keeper Capt. Ernest J. Bondy inspects the lens in 1937.

The two-foot-tall glass lens resembles a giant beehive and was made in the early 1880s. The lens relies on a revolutionary design that focuses light into a single beam that can travel more than 20 miles.

The U.S. government bought the lens for a planned lighthouse on the southeast part of Belle Isle in 1881. The lens, developed by French physicist and engineer Augustin-Jean Fresnel, was installed later in the Belle Isle lighthouse, a square, red-brick tower with an attached two-story brick building.

Fresnel lenses, however, are fragile, expensive to fix and tough to clean. Many were replaced with automated beacons while some were scavenged for brass components during World War II, dropped down elevator shafts, tossed from lighthouse towers, dumped in the sea or sold by Coast Guard stations.

The Belle Isle lens did not suffer such a fate.

The Belle Isle lighthouse was decommissioned in 1930 as part of plans to build the William Livingstone Memorial Lighthouse less than a mile away on the northeast part of the island. The original Belle Isle lighthouse was demolished in 1943.

The lens was moved to the Livingstone lighthouse in 1935 or 1936, according to the Coast Guard, but a fog enveloped its fate. Joel Stone, the Dossin Great Lakes Museum’s senior curator, had heard it was destroyed.

Others heard it was stolen.

Search leads to Indiana

Thieves broke into the Livingstone lighthouse in August 1980 after cracking open a locked brass-and-copper door. Two lenses were stolen but it was unclear if the theft included the original Belle Isle lens, which weighs several hundred pounds.

Federal investigators found clues about the fate of the lens 280 miles southwest of Detroit in the small town of New Castle, Indiana, the hometown of 1980s Detroit Piston Kent Benson.

Investigators subpoenaed handwritten meeting minutes from the Henry County Historical Society Museum that revealed the government loaned the lens to the Indiana museum in October 1946.

The loan was made amid a government-wide program that loaned antiquated navigation equipment to museums, schools and maritime societies. 

Due to legal restrictions, Coast Guard lenses cannot be sold or given as gifts and the power to dispose of government property rests with Congress.

Additional details surrounding the loan were elusive.

"It is believed that everyone involved in the acquisition of the lens by Henry County Historical Society is now deceased," Assistant U.S. Attorney Laura Anne Sagolla wrote in a court filing.

In the meantime, in the 1980s, Gronow founded the Maritime Exchange Museum, a private collection with rare and exotic items, including buoy lights salvaged from the Persian Gulf.

In 2005, lens preservationist Chad Kaiser, who worked for Gronow, was driving from Kentucky to Metro Detroit, stopping at every museum near the highway, hunting for relics.

"He is always stopping and looking and learning," Gronow said.

Kaiser stopped at the Henry County museum, an hour west of Interstate 75, and found the lens in the basement.

The discovery triggered a round of research, and Kaiser learned of the link to Belle Isle, likely by comparing the lens' serial number with an online database.

In February 2006, Gronow wired $25,000 to the museum to buy the lens and dispatched Kaiser to collect the artifact.

The lens was in such good condition, all Kaiser had to do was clean it. He stored the lens, worth an estimated $350,000, in a custom-made crate in the bed of his truck and returned the artifact to Michigan for the first time in 60 years.

The lens, and a second one from a Maine lighthouse, are displayed in Gronow's museum in a climate-controlled room with low humidity in an area that prevents Ultraviolet damage and protected by an alarm.

Feds come calling

In 2009, Gronow listed the lenses for sale on his website, according to the government.

After the lenses were listed for sale, federal prosecutors in Detroit sued Gronow and his museum to recover the lenses.

Gronow argued he should keep the lenses because he bought them in good faith.

"Gronow’s seller was not the United States, but some private party," the judge ruled. "And no one further up the chain of ownership ever received good title from the United States, so as to pass it further down the chain and ultimately to Gronow."

In April, the judge ordered Gronow to surrender the lenses to the U.S. Coast Guard in approximately 60 days.

The period elapsed with the government failing to contact Gronow and arrange a date to retrieve the lenses, his lawyer wrote in a court filing. The government didn't reach out until September.

The Coast Guard hired Fresnel lens expert Kurtis Fosburg to help retrieve the lenses.

Fosburg owns Superior Lighthouse Restoration near Marquette and was paid $2,188 to travel from the Upper Peninsula to retrieve the lenses at Gronow's lighthouse-shaped mansion.

The lenses eventually are bound for a Coast Guard facility in Maryland.

"There are no immediate plans to loan out the lens; however, should a Detroit area museum or eligible nonprofit express interest in borrowing the lens, we would be happy to review the request, and potentially make it available for loan," said Coast Guard spokeswoman Lieutenant Amy Midgett said.

On Oct. 1, the government notified Gronow that the pick-up would happen within three weeks and asked him to suggest a date and time.

Despite the judge's order, Gronow refused to surrender the lenses unless the government paid storage fees of $250 per day — a request Assistant U.S. Attorney Peter Caplan called "silly."

The government should pay $63,000 to Gronow for maintaining, insuring and storing the lenses since April, the treasure hunter's lawyer James Pelland argued in a court filing.

"This is not an insignificant task, but rather entails much more than simply placing the lenses in a corner," Pelland wrote in a court filing. "The lenses ... are not just ordinary lighthouse lenses that can be stored in any location. These are Fresnel lenses. The lenses are very old, fragile and require specific care, maintenance and storage requirements."

Prosecutors refused to pay any storage fees and told Gronow the lenses would be retrieved Oct. 9. Gronow also was warned that failure to cooperate and heed the judge's order would prompt prosecutors to seek sanctions.

"Alas," Caplan wrote in a court filing, "the feared result came to pass."

Stopped at the gate

The government's lens expert and two Coast Guard officials arrived at Gronow's 40-acre estate at the scheduled time.

Gronow wasn't home.

"In the end, he refused to surrender possession of the lenses, opting for the courageous approach of leaving his wife to deal with the government representatives," Caplan wrote. "She refused to open the gate or to otherwise provide the access necessary to allow retrieval of the lenses."

Gronow rightly refused to relinquish the lenses, his lawyer argued.

"Defendants rightly demanded to be compensated for the value of their services to care for the governmental property, and rightfully refused to release the lenses without being justly compensated," Pelland wrote.

On Nov. 6, prosecutors asked the judge to hold Gronow in contempt, reimburse the government for the $2,188 paid to the lampist plus civil fines of $1,000 a day. 

"It is time for the games to end," Caplan wrote.

"He lost," Caplan said in court Monday. The proper response isn't "to fold your arms, hold your breath, stamp your feet and spit."

Prosecutors wanted the judge to give the U.S. Marshals Service permission to enter Gronow's mansion "with all necessary force" to retrieve the lenses.

"...the threat of a bench warrant," Caplan wrote, "may go a long way toward focusing Gronow's mind."

None of this is necessary, Gronow's lawyer argued in a court filing.

"Defendants have always maintained that they would release the lenses upon payment of the storage fees," Pelland wrote. "Defendants are not being defiant ... but merely seek to be justly compensated for the government’s failure to timely retrieve the lenses."

Gronow can sue the government for storage fees, the judge said while ordering the treasure hunter to relinquish the lenses.

"I have no interest in putting anyone in jail...but my orders are not going to be disobeyed," Goldsmith said.


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