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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.

Emmermann wrote the increasingly anxious "Orb" that he would not be able to come to the U.S. until September, but that his brother, Kurt, and sister-in-law, Lynn, also a mineral collector, could verify the rocks' authenticity and complete the deal. Emmermann told "Orb" that he had wired $100,000 to Lynn.

A meeting was set up for July in Orlando, Fla., not far from "Orb's" purported hometown of Tampa.

Clear Lake, Texas, has its tacky touches, including a NASA Liquor near Challenger Plaza. But the waterside community, where houses sell for $200,000 to $2 million, is considered one of Houston's finest suburbs.

It's also a playground for the young NASA interns and "co-ops" who cram into dormitory-style apartments. They can find live music and $2 margaritas at Las Haciendas on NASA Road, or party at Rock Neutney's--a popular bar--and maybe hook up with an astronaut.

By his third tour at NASA, Roberts was widely known in the co-op community. "I was organizing the adventures, like rock climbing and waterfalls," he says. But by the spring of 2002, Roberts says things weren't so good with his wife: "I was trying to find a way to move on."

One night, a group of interns took the ferry to Galveston Island. As the waters of the Gulf of Mexico lapped against the boat, a pretty blond caught Roberts' eye. Tiffany Brooke Fowler, from Odessa, Texas, was a recent biology graduate of Texas Lutheran University. The interns built a bonfire on the beach and Fowler and Roberts got to know each other. "When I met Tiffany, we talked for 14 hours straight," he says. "She was blond, blue-eyed, very tone. She was way out of my league."

Roberts made a strong impression on Fowler, too. "Very intelligent," she would later describe him. "Pretty much good at everything."

After they hooked up at the beach, it wasn't long before Roberts moved into Fowler's apartment. As they played house, he wondered how he could be a provider for her.

"I was in love with Tiffany," he says. "In my mind, I was thinking, Baby, I'd give you the moon. It would be a romantic start to our relationship."

Roberts had long since taken over the e-mail negotiations from McWhorter, and he was excited that a buyer was on the hook. Days before the theft, he asked Fowler to help.

At about the same time, Roberts had lunch with Shae Saur, a friend from a previous stint at NASA. She sensed his excitement and demanded to know what was going on. In true geek style, Roberts said he would tell her only if she could solve a word puzzle. She did, and signed on to the caper.

On that fateful night, after they cut apart the safe, Roberts, Fowler and Saur cataloged the contents and put the remains of the safe in a dumpster. Later, they packed the lunar samples, the Martian meteorite and supporting documentation into a fishing tackle box and stashed it all in Saur's storage unit in the nearby town of Beaumont.

Gibson later claimed that six irreplaceable notebooks documenting 33 years of research were also stolen, which Roberts denies.

"We saw ourselves as good criminals," he says. "We didn't see anyone getting hurt. These rocks had already been irradiated and were labeled trash, used, consumed. We weren't hurting science. We wore gloves the whole time. We took the extra effort."

The theft wasn't discovered for two days. "They were looking for someone in their early 40s; they weren't on to us," Roberts says.

Roberts e-mailed McWhorter and they arranged to meet in Orlando. Saur stayed in Houston. Barely able to contain their excitement, Roberts and Fowler loaded the tackle box into her car on July 19. They left Houston at 5 p.m. and drove through the night to Orlando.

On July 20, 2002, 33 years after Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon, Roberts and Fowler were ready to sell some moon rocks. At the Orlando Sheraton, they pulled out the tackle box to show McWhorter. "He acted surprised; he was out of it," Roberts says.

"I was smoking some good weed," McWhorter says. When he saw the NASA logos, he sobered up enough to ask, "Do you guys realize how much trouble we're in?" He says they "just laughed."

"I knew it was against federal law, but I thought I'd [deliver] it from some guy in Mexico to some guy in Europe," says McWhorter, who still maintains that he did not know Roberts worked at NASA.

The meeting with the buyers was set for a restaurant. McWhorter and Fowler sat in a corner while Roberts waited at another table for Lynn, their prospect's sister-in-law. They stayed in touch via walkie-talkies, like kids playing spies.

Lynn walked in and asked for "Orb." She and Roberts talked and became acquainted. When Lynn's husband, Kurt, arrived, McWhorter and Fowler joined them.

After dinner, Roberts got into Lynn's Jaguar and they drove to the Sheraton hotel. McWhorter and Fowler followed. As they stepped out of their vehicles, FBI agents approached: "You're under arrest, hands on the car."

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