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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.

"Kurt" was Lawrence Wolfenden, an FBI special agent. Alex Emmermann had contacted him through the bureau's Internet Fraud Coordinator when "Orb's" e-mails started arriving. "Lynn" was FBI agent Lynn Billings. Wolfenden and other agents had taken over the correspondence from Emmermann.

Originally convinced that it was an Internet scam, Wolfenden had traced the e-mails and determined that some came from the Johnson Space Center. "That really kicked things up a notch," he says, adding that he thought, "My God, they might actually have access to these things."

"Everybody in the restaurant was FBI," Roberts says. "They arrested us, handcuffed us and made us sit for hours while they got a search warrant. I felt my soul drain out of my body."

Saur was arrested in Houston, and she, Roberts and Fowler immediately confessed and implicated one another. McWhorter was less forthcoming. The charges included conspiracy to steal, transport and sell government property. When the FBI searched Roberts' Salt Lake City apartment for more moon rocks, they found fossils he had taken from the Utah Museum of Natural History, which resulted in an additional charge.

Fowler, Saur and McWhorter made bail and began to prepare for the legal proceedings. No one paid Roberts' bail, so he spent the next 16 months in a Florida jail. "My father said if any of [his kids] got in jail, he'd make sure we stayed there as long as possible," Roberts says.

McWhorter jumped bail and wandered off. "I wanted to go into the desert without water or food to try to end it all," he says. When he was picked up in Utah, he reportedly gave his name as Job.

"My attorney was very adamant that I should take a plea, that the feds do not lose trials," McWhorter says. "But I couldn't do it; I felt I'd be betraying myself. I used the Internet for two hours and got six years? I'm not a terrorist, but a college kid who got caught up in a glorified fraternity prank."

His mother supported his decision for a trial. "Why plead guilty when you didn't steal the moon rocks?" Riki Thoreson says. "He had nothing to do with the theft or the transportation."

The feds did indeed come down on McWhorter. A parade of witnesses, including FBI agents, former astronaut Harrison Schmitt, NASA lunar sample curator Gary Lofgren, NASA cost analyst Kelley Cyr (who pegged the replacement value of the rocks at $32 million), an e-mail verification expert, plus Roberts and Fowler, testified against him. His attorney did not call any witnesses or put McWhorter on the stand.

McWhorter was convicted and is serving five years and 10 months at the Federal Correctional Institution in Florence, Colo. Fowler and Saur, given leniency for cooperation, got six months of house arrest and three years of probation. With their felony convictions, neither can become an astronaut.

Roberts was sentenced last, in October 2003. In a statement to a nearly empty courtroom, he apologized to NASA, Gibson, the University of Utah, Fowler and Saur. He did not mention McWhorter. Thoreson is not surprised. "Gordon threw away his future for this idiot scheme of Thad Roberts'. To save his own skin, [Roberts] damned my son."

Calling Roberts a "master manipulator," Judge Anne C. Conway effectively doubled the sentencing guideline of 46 to 57 months, sentencing him to eight years and four months in federal prison.

The staff at the Johnson Space Center was shocked that a member of the family would commit such a crime. Since the theft, the co-op program has added ethics education to its training for incoming students. And there have been some security changes, though NASA declines to elaborate.

Today it is still difficult to figure out what Roberts--by all accounts a bright young man--was thinking when he conceived the scheme that would destroy his dreams. Or what would make him think that he could get away with it. Or how he could talk two other NASA hopefuls into going along.

Roberts only says that he "didn't think of the ramifications" and that he and McWhorter "shared fantasies of making money." Already in their mid-20s and having had marriages fail, they may have been more focused on financial security than the average undergrad. McWhorter says Roberts was "arrogant," which might have contributed to believing they wouldn't get caught.

Roberts also is doing his time at the Federal Correctional Institution in Florence, Colo. According to a supervisor, he's a model prisoner and is trying to get a telescope for an astronomy class that he'll teach his fellow inmates. "Without those floodlights on," Roberts says, "you can see the stars."

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Researcher Jessica Gelt contributed to this story.

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