updated 3/29/2005 3:57:14 AM ET 2005-03-29T08:57:14

Researchers want to excavate an old Japanese jail where aviator Amelia Earhart and her navigator were rumored to have been detained before they vanished in 1937.

The Historic Preservation Office of the Northern Mariana Islands has applied for a grant with the National Park Service to fund the excavation, hoping to solve the 67-year-old mystery of what became of Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan.

The Northern Mariana Islands, about 3,800 miles southwest of Hawaii, were administered by Japan from 1914 to 1944 and are now a U.S. commonwealth.

“In the past, there had been rumors that Amelia Earhart’s plane was shot down and she was held captive by her Japanese captors on suspicion that she was a spy,” said Epiphanio Cabrera, director of the preservation office. He said the aviator was supposedly “burned and buried at the back of the jail.”

Earhart was 39 and already had set numerous flying records when she began her final flight May 20, 1937, from Oakland, Calif.

She made it as far as New Guinea. On July 2, she took off from there for tiny Howland Island on a 2,556-mile flight.

Earhart and Noonan never reached the atoll. In one of her last radio messages to the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Itasca, she said her fuel was running low. No trace of her, Noonan or their Lockheed Electra plane was ever found.

The project looking for signs of Earhart’s presence on the prison grounds is expected to begin by September, and could “close the gap” regarding various claims on Earhart’s disappearance, Cabrera said.

A year after she and Noonan vanished, a French consul sent a telegram to the U.S. State Department claiming Earhart was a prisoner of the Japanese on Saipan. Some locals insist she died in captivity and was buried on the island.

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