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Stolen NASA Disks Land Back at UC Irvine


IRVINE — The first mysterious telephone message for the UC Irvine geosciences department said simply: "I'll call back."

The next one came several hours later, when a man's voice spoke in falsetto: "You can find what you're looking for on the physical sciences loading dock."

A department aide rushed to the nearby dock. There, in a cardboard box, was a laptop computer and five computer disks holding vital analyses of National Aeronautics and Space Administration data on the Earth's eroding ozone layer.

Darin Toohey could hardly believe his ears when he was awakened at 7:30 a.m. Monday with the news that the equipment stolen in an Easter weekend burglary had been returned--apparently in response to a rare public appeal.

"I was surprised, because I never expected to see them again," the elated atmospheric chemist said Wednesday.

Asked why he thought the thieves returned the equipment and research disks, Toohey said, "Global consciousness? I honestly don't know, but I'm happy they did."

Toohey and campus officials waited until Wednesday to announce the return of the NASA-owned laptop computer and the disks because they had to track down special equipment to check the data and verify that they had not been tampered with.

"Everything's there," he said.

Still missing, however, is an expensive disk-reading machine taken with the computer and disks from the locked office of Linnea Avallone, a Harvard doctoral candidate and co-researcher on the NASA project.

Also missing are more than $4,000 in computer equipment and a short-wave radio believed taken in the same heist from the office of geosciences professor William S. Reeburgh just two doors down.

"But that's OK, this is what we said we wanted back," said Ralph J. Cicerone, department chairman. "We're just very, very happy to get this stuff. Now these researchers (Toohey and Avallone) can get back to work again; their science is back on track."

A campus police detective rushed over to examine the purloined equipment almost as soon as it was recovered, department officials said. Whether the detective was able to gather any clues to trace the thieves was unclear. Dennis Powers, UCI's assistant chief of police, did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

In the meantime, the $1,000 reward offered for return of the NASA research data has gone unclaimed.

"The safest assumption is that the people who returned it don't want to run the risk of doing whatever's required to claim it," Cicerone said.

Once bitten, Toohey and Avallone say they will keep a third backup copy of their work in a safe place.

Asked if other precautions were needed, Toohey said: "I think we were pretty careful as it was. That's one of the things that shocked us. This taught us that nothing is safe."

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