WEST PALM BEACH � The intrigue surrounding the last photo taken of Elvis, the one of The King laid out in his casket, continues.
The famous photo sent millions of grieving Elvis Presley fans streaming to supermarkets when it appeared on the cover of the National Enquirer weeks after the rock 'n' roll god's death. But it was not in the tabloid's Boca Raton headquarters when the building was decontaminated and reopened six years after a 2001 anthrax attack, according to a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court.
David Rustine, the Boca Raton developer who inherited millions of celebrity photos when he bought the tabloid's contaminated headquarters for $40,000 in 2003 says he suspects the 1977 photo was snatched by a man who teamed with former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to clean the building.
Saying the photo is worth at least $1 million, Rustine filed the lawsuit, seeking to force John Y. Mason to give it back or pay him for it.
"Mason is wrongfully detaining the Elvis Photo," Rustine says in the lawsuit filed last week.
Mason is president and CEO of the Slingerlands, N.Y.-based Sabre Technical Services. In 2004, Sabre and Giuliani Partners formed Bio-One.
Rustine hired the biological and chemical remediation company to clean the building on Broken Sound Boulevard that was contaminated by anthrax shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The still-unsolved attack killed tabloid photo editor Bob Stevens, who apparently breathed in the toxin when he opened an envelope containing anthrax spores.
Neither Mason nor Rustine returned phone calls or e-mails Tuesday for comment.
However, an attorney who fought unsuccessfully to get the Enquirer's parent company, American Media Inc., to return roughly 1,400 photos shot by a freelance photographer, said there is a certain irony to Rustine's lawsuit.
"How does he figure he owns them?" attorney Mark Journey asked.
He said many of the photos Rustine inherited when he bought the contaminated building belong to photographers, like his client Greg Mathieson, who shot them for the Enquirer and AMI's other newspapers with the understanding the company would protect them or pay him $1,500 each if they were destroyed.
Mathieson's $2 million lawsuit against AMI was thrown out by U.S. District Judge Donald Middlebrooks, who found that the freelance photographer couldn't collect damages because his pictures were destroyed by a criminal act.
Journey pointed out in court papers he filed as part of the failed lawsuit, AMI was paid millions by its insurer for its archive of prints and photographs before Rustine bought the $3.8 million building for a song.
In the case of the Elvis photo, reports indicate it was owned by AMI. While rumours swirled for years about how the Enquirer got the coffin shot, the gossip mill ground to a halt in 2004 with the publication of a book by a former Enquirer top editor.
In his book, The Untold Story: My 20 Years Running the National Enquirer, former Executive Editor Iain Calder recounted how the tabloid paid one of Elvis' many cousins $18,000 to snap the picture. Displayed on the cover, the issue sold a record-setting 6.5 million copies and became part of tabloid lore.
Those who believe Elvis is still alive said the photo looked nothing like The King, proving his death was a hoax.
In the lawsuit, Rustine claims Mason held the photo hostage and tried to use it to extort concessions from him. Rustine claims Mason showed him a copy of the original photo. Then, facing a May 31, 2005, deadline to complete the cleanup, Mason told Rustine he would "lose the Elvis Photo" if he didn't get a contract extension, according to the lawsuit.
Rustine reported the threat to another Bio-One official and was told that Mason would not confirm the location of the photo.
While Rustine didn't extend the contract, it was another nine months before the quarantine on the building was lifted.
When Rustine finally moved his real estate company into the renamed Crown Commerce Centre in February 2007, the Elvis photo was missing.
By Jane Musgrave
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Posted: 22nd. May 2008