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PHOENIX (Reuters) - Police searched on Friday for clues to the suspected theft of a rare, first-edition copy of the Book of Mormon, valued at $100,000, that was reported stolen from a suburban Phoenix bookstore over the Memorial Day weekend.
The authorities said they were in the early stages of an investigation into the disappearance of the 1830 leather-bound volume, which its owner said has became a must-see artifact for young Mormons worldwide before embarking on church missions.
"At this time we have no specific information of the whereabouts of the book," said Detective Steve Berry, a Mesa, Arizona police spokesman. "I don't think it's a big secret the book was there. But I don't think everyone knows how valuable it is."
The Book of Mormon is a foundational, holy text of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The 588-page book missing since Monday is one of only 5,000 copies ever printed, said its owner, bookstore owner and proprietor Helen Schlie.
The Book of Mormon was published in 1830 by church founder Joseph Smith, who claimed the manuscript came from his translation of an ancient "reformed Egyptian" text engraved on golden plates he found buried, with the guidance of an angel, in a stone box near his home in New York state.
Schlie, who bought the first-edition print in the late 1960s, told Reuters that she discovered the book was missing when she went to retrieve it for two missionaries visiting from Asia. The women wanted to take a picture with it.
Such requests are common. The cramped store, overflowing with books, has a special area set aside for people to take pictures with the famous text. Emotional reactions to touching the book are common, she said.
Schlie, 88, said she was stunned when she went into her office, opened the bottom draw of an unlocked file cabinet where the book was kept in fireproof box, and the volume was nowhere to be found.
"I still can't believe it," she told Reuters. "It's been so much a part of my life for years, and now it's gone. It's been a shock."
Schlie, a convert to the Mormon faith whose store is a block away from a large Mormon temple in downtown Mesa, sparked controversy in 2005 when she started to sell framed pages out of the book for between $2,500 and $4,000.
She has said her intention was to earn enough money to open an ice cream parlor that would generate revenue for Mormon youths to help pay for their missions and perhaps future education.
About 50 pages were sold before the weekend disappearance of the book, whose total value Schlie puts at about $100,000. All that remains in her possession at the moment is a single framed page, from Chapter 5.
Schlie said it was important for the book be returned, so it can "finish its mission."
"Someone said the person who took it should read it, ponder it and then return it. That sounds right," she said.
Editing by Steve Gorman and Greg McCune