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Mystery Surrounds an Apparent Suicide of Engineer

Man falls out of an airplane after he had been questioned about a stolen NASA computer.

November 20, 2002|Lianne Hart | Times Staff Writer

HOUSTON — He was an aerospace engineer, one of the hundreds who work in gray anonymity at the Johnson Space Center south of this city. But after federal authorities questioned him last Thursday about a stolen government computer, 47-year-old Russell Edward Filler made a dramatic exit.

The recreational pilot apparently jumped to his death from the Cessna 152 he was co-piloting Sunday as his flight instructor momentarily looked away. Filler's body was found late Tuesday afternoon by sheriff's deputies searching the rice fields and pastures of rural Waller County northwest of here.

"He was being treated for depression, and I think the legal problems with the stolen computer just added to it," Waller County Sheriff Randy Smith said. "I think the flight on Sunday was just a pretext for him to commit suicide."

Filler had worked for six years at United Space Alliance, a space station contractor with offices in the NASA complex. The computer -- a Dell laptop -- disappeared after an Oct. 25 meeting in a space center conference room, Harris County Sheriff's Capt. Robert Van Pelt said. Police traced the laptop to Filler's home this month after he used it to go online, tripping a device that sent his phone number to a government tracking center.

Faced with investigators from the Harris County sheriff's office, the U.S. inspector general's office and Johnson Space Center security, Filler said that he had spotted an ad for the computer on a bulletin board at a neighborhood Kroger's grocery store. After paying the seller $500 in an anonymous parking lot exchange, Filler said, he took the laptop home and turned it on. It was then that he realized it contained government software.

"He said he knew it was stolen when he bought it, but he never reported it," Van Pelt said. "He kept it in his possession."

Filler, who was single, needed more flight hours to renew his pilot's license, Smith said. On Sunday, he drove 75 miles to a small airport in Hempstead, Texas, where he climbed into the Cessna with a flight instructor. Forty-five minutes later, the plane was cruising at 9,000 feet. "The flight instructor heard a noise, and the man had opened the door and out he went," Smith said.

Filler's mother, who answered the phone Tuesday at his suburban Houston home, said she had traveled to Texas from Ft. Wayne, Ind., after receiving a distraught call from her son last week. "He was real depressed," said the woman, who would not give her name or talk about the cause of her son's distress. "And now this. It's so awful. No one can believe it.

"He was a wonderful son," she added. "He was very outgoing and had friends all over the world because he traveled with his job."

Mike Curie, a spokesman for United Space Alliance, said that Filler had worked for several Johnson Space Center contractors since 1981. His current job included testing hardware before it was installed on the space station, Curie said. Filler's death is "a shock," he added.

Van Pelt said that there was "nothing of a sensitive nature on the computer." If no NASA secrets were stored on the computer, investigators are left to ponder why a possible theft charge would cause Filler to take his life. "It's all speculation right now," Van Pelt said. "I don't know what was in this man's mind."

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