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Sheer Lunacy

Four College Students Hatched a Scheme to Steal Moon Rocks From the Johnson Space Center. It Was a Crazy Idea--and It Worked.

June 06, 2004|Michael Goldstein | Michael Goldstein is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.

But the odds were against Roberts getting a coveted co-op slot. Only about 6% of applicants are accepted, from schools such as Texas A&M and the University of Texas, and many are engineering majors, which Roberts wasn't. Also, Roberts was considerably older than most college sophomores--and married.

With interests in physics, geology and anthropology, and years of fossil-hunting experience, Roberts had the makings of a planetary geologist. But what really sold NASA on Roberts was his enthusiasm--running the university observatory, volunteering at the Utah Museum of Natural History in Salt Lake City and raising $9,800 for cystic fibrosis research through a Salt Lake-to-San Francisco bike ride with his wife, Kaydee.

"The folks we pick are overachievers with indicators for success on their resume," says Bob Musgrove, the manager of cooperative education at the Johnson Space Center. "They're well-rounded rather than 'nerds.' "

After what Roberts remembers as "a hundred phone calls and e-mails," he was accepted to the program in the fall of 2000. When he was back at school, he gravitated toward the observatory. "I'd go up there to do my problem sets," Roberts recalls, his green eyes looking far away.

One night in 2001, just before the fall semester began, a tall, long-haired student wandered up to the observatory. There, Gordon McWhorter, then 25, met Roberts, and they talked about their futures through the night. "Like 14-year-old boys," Roberts says.

If Roberts was an achiever, some would say McWhorter was a loser, although his fiercely protective mother would disagree. "He looks like 'Joe Millionaire,' but he's better looking and sincere," Riki Thoreson insists.

McWhorter had lost a lot, including his sister, Kelen, in a car crash, and later his family. "I complicated my life by becoming eccentrically involved in [the Mormon Church], to the point where I isolated my wife and child," he says. "Y2K was coming, and I was getting ready with all this food storage. The church didn't care for my ideas. They did their best to make my wife scared of me."

McWhorter made his way to Georgia to see his long-estranged father and ask for money. When his father refused, McWhorter took some of his father's belongings to a pawnshop, where he was promptly arrested.

Released after pleading guilty to misdemeanor burglary, his mother told him, "Come home, go to school and stay out of trouble."

"Thad was the first friend I made [at school]," McWhorter says. "I would go to Thad and Kaydee's house, play Nintendo and check out his collection of minerals. We'd go out and eat buffalo wings and play pool, and drink as much beer as we could."

Around Halloween 2001, Roberts and McWhorter were at the Utah Museum of Natural History.

"We're down in the basement where the artifacts are cataloged," McWhorter says. "I had donated an Angel Wing calcite crystal in my sister's name. We were talking about the value of it and Thad says, 'What do you think about moon rocks?' "

" 'Sounds pretty cool. Moon rocks are moon rocks.' "

McWhorter says Roberts then asked if he thought he could find a buyer.

"He'd come up to me a few times after that. 'Have you done anything?' I didn't because I was busy," McWhorter says. Finally he got curious and went to a website for mineral collectors. "I made a form letter: 'Anyone interested in a private bid on a moon rock, please e-mail me back.' "

McWhorter sent the e-mails from the University of Utah library, using a fictitious address. Later, he forwarded the replies to Roberts and they created an e-mail address for Orb Robinson, a play on one of their favorite singers, Roy Orbison.

On May 7, 2002, Axel Emmermann, a Belgian amateur mineralogist, received the e-mail from "Orb Robinson." He replied that he might be interested in the offer if the price was right, and only if the samples could be authenticated properly.

It was no surprise that a potential buyer quickly surfaced. There's a kind of fever that comes over some people about moon rocks. Michael Orenstein of Aurora Galleries International in Bell Canyon, Calif., which specializes in space memorabilia, describes them as "an ultimate collectible."

The only problem: It's illegal for anyone but the federal government to possess them.

"Orb" responded to Emmermann, promising authentication and asking the prospective buyer what he considered a good price. Emmermann wrote back, proposing $800 a gram for rocks under 10 grams and $600 a gram for larger specimens.

"I can do better for you than that," "Orb" wrote back the next day, offering prices starting at $500 a gram for half a kilogram, tapering down to $300 a gram for a kilo-sized moon rock. "If you are seriously interested we should meet and confirm this."

There was no response for days. "Orb" wrote repeatedly: "Acquiring this specimen is a sensitive matter for me, as you can imagine, and that is why I have the minimum mass requirement."

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