Four Arrested for Stealing Moon Rocks
RACHEL LA CORTE
Jul. 23, 2002
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TAMPA, Fla. (AP) _ Three student employees and another man were charged with stealing a safe full of moon rocks and meteorites from the Johnson Space Center in Houston and trying to sell them, the FBI said Monday.
The items offered for sale by the suspects were kept in a 600-pound safe that was noticed missing July 15, space center spokesman Kyle Herring said. The safe contained lunar samples from every Apollo mission.
Undercover FBI agents arrested Thad Roberts, 25, Tiffany Fowler, 22, and Gordon McWorter, 26, on Saturday in Orlando. They are charged with conspiracy to commit the theft of government property and transportation in interstate commerce of stolen property.
Shae Saur, 19, was arrested in Houston, and charged with conspiracy, FBI officials said.
Roberts, Fowler, and Saur have been fired from the space center, Herring said. Their job descriptions were not immediately known.
No one answered the phone at the Tampa federal public defender's office after hours Monday and it could not be determined if the suspects have attorneys.
Undercover agents received an e-mail tip in May and started communicating with a person offering ``priceless moon rocks'' collected by Apollo astronauts in 1969 and the early 1970s, FBI agent James Jarboe said.
The ad was placed May 9 on the Web site of the Mineralogy Club of Antwerp, Belgium, according to the criminal complaint filed Monday in federal court in Tampa.
Investigators say Roberts offered to sell the rocks from between $1,000 and $5,000 a gram.
``As you well know, it is illegal to sell Apollo lunar rocks in the United States,'' one e-mail read. ``This obviously has not discouraged me since I live in the United States. However, I must be cautious that this deal is handled with delicacy in that I am not publicly exposed.''
Undercover agents set up a meeting in Orlando this past weekend to finalize the purchase.
Special Agent Wayne Nichols Nance Jr. wrote that Roberts arrived at an Orlando restaurant and told two undercover agents his name was ``Orb.'' With him were Fowler, his girlfriend, and McWhorter.
According to the complaint, Roberts said Fowler and Saur helped him steal the safe and load it into a sports utility vehicle.
Lance Carrington, assistant inspector general for NASA, said a researcher stored the samples in a laboratory in a secure setting. ``And we had, basically, a breaking and entering take place, and the safe was stolen,'' he said.
The samples were displayed Monday in the Tampa FBI office in the green and white tackle box and small blue suitcase that brought them to Florida.
``Right now we're comfortable that we've recovered all of them,'' Jarboe said.
On the Net: http://www.nasa.gov