JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- During a private tour not long after the Missouri State Penitentiary closed its doors a decade ago, the original keys to the prison's gas chamber mysteriously disappeared.
Prison historians hope that by taking their search for the keys public -- along with details about why they are important -- someone will come forward with them.
The keys, individually cut by the prison's locksmith in the 1930s, were present at all 39 executions at MSP, the Jefferson City News Tribune (http://bit.ly/SoP66Q ) reported Sunday.
Based on information from a former prison locksmith, no back-up sets were made, said Mark Schreiber, a prison historian and former deputy warden.
The prison closed in September 2004. The keys were last seen during a private tour hosted by local historians in 2005, the newspaper reported. A group of more than 100 was divided into two groups, and the first tour guide left the keys in the door for the second guide.
Within a few minutes, the keys disappeared. Schreiber said he and another tour guide searched the gas chamber's roof and grounds and surrounding buildings without finding them.
"Somebody has the keys somewhere," Schreiber said.
More than a piece of history, the keys still are needed for a functional use, he said. With repairs and maintenance continuing inside the prison, workers eventually had to cut through locks to gain access to the holding cells in the gas chamber.
They keys on a soldered ring are not labeled as the "gas chamber," but instead simply say "admin keys 17."
Without their return, the original locks may have to be replaced or welded so they no longer latch.
"Our hope is with public awareness we will get the keys back," Schreiber said. "The locking mechanisms are part of the structure's history."
The three most important keys on the gas chamber ring are to the front door and the two holding cells inside. Those would have been used to open the building to a minimum of 25 witnesses and staff for each execution.
Returning the missing keys would be a show of respect for the history that has occurred at the gas chamber and all of the MSP, Schreiber said.
"We have not forgotten they've been gone since 2005," he said.