International Battle Over Historic Ship

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It's a 21st century battle over a ship that disappeared more than 300 years ago. The questions of whether a diver has found the wreck of the Griffon and who owns it will be settled in a Grand Rapids courtroom.

They call the Griffon the "holy grail" of Great Lakes shipwrecks, and a diver from Virginia claims he has found it.

The Griffon went down in Lake Michigan more than three centuries ago. Built by the French explorer La Salle in his quest to find the Northwest Passage to China, it is considered the first commercial shipwreck in the Great Lakes.

The ship started its maiden voyage from Niagara, New York in August of 1679. It sailed across Lake Erie and through Lake Huron, into Lake Michigan to the shores of Green Bay Wisconsin. That's where the crew loaded it up with 6,000 pounds of furs and trade goods and headed back to Niagara.

But the Griffon never made it. Historians believe it sank in a storm somewhere in northern Lake Michigan. Some divers believe it's not too far from Washington Island.

A diver from Virginia named Steve Libert claims that after twenty six years of searching he found the ship in 2001 and that a piece of wood he videotaped sticking up from the bottom of the lake is part of it.

"If this is the Griffon, this is going to be one hell of a major thing for all underwater archaeologists around the world," said Libert.

But here's the problem. Who owns the wreckage?

The diver, the State of Michigan, the federal government, or the country of France? They all want rights to the Griffon, and they're all fighting about it in court.

Libert won't disclose its specific location until the issue is settled.

"I have to be careful what I say because if I do, you'll know the location too," said Libert.

After five years of legal battles, the case ended up in Federal court in Grand Rapids. The court must try to determine whether Libert has the right to the wreck and be allowed to obtain permits to go down and explore it. It has been a long and expensive fight over a wreckage everyone wants but some divers don't believe is the real thing.

"There's a piece of wood sticking out of the bottom. Is it a ship?" said Valerie Van Heest, a local diver and researcher who has helped locate more than a dozen shipwrecks over the past decade. "I haven't seen any evidence that it is,"

So far, the only evidence Libert has released has been the pictures of the single piece of wood.

"It seems to me quite a waste of resources and court time to battle a piece of wood," said Van Heest.

Libert told Fox 17 News he has sonar pictures of the wreck along with video, but he hasn't released the evidence because it would give away the ship's location. He also said he had a small piece of the wood tested and it allegedly shows it is old enough to fit the time frame of days the Griffon sailed the lakes.

"If it's not the Griffon, it's going to write some other chapters in the history books," said Libert. "What other ship could it be that's this old?"

Answers could come next month when all of the parties, including a lawyer for France, battling it out again in court.

We'll be in court to let you know what happens.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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