Sheer Lunacy

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Greetings. My name is Orb Robinson from Tampa, Fla. I have in my possession a rare and multi-karat moon rock I'm trying to find a buyer for. The laws surrounding this type of exchange are known, so I will be straightforward and nonchalant about wanting to find a private buyer. If you, or someone you know would be interested in such an exchange, please let me know. Thank you.*

On a balmy night in July 2002, a Jeep Cherokee drove up to an entrance at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. The guard took a casual look at the car as he questioned the driver.

"You get a new car?"

"No, sir, borrowed it to help a friend move."

With a nod and a smile, the guard waved through the young man and his two female companions. Although access to NASA was restricted after 9/11, that didn't apply to the industrious college students working at the center. NASA picks only the best and the brightest, with an eye on promoting top candidates to full-time employment or even the astronaut training program.

Thad Roberts, then 25, was in the Cooperative Education Program, working in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory as a support diver—helping space-suited astronauts practice their tasks in a 40-foot-deep pool. Tiffany Fowler, 22 and romantically involved with Roberts, was an intern in NASA's tissue culture laboratory. Shae Saur, 19, was another high-achieving intern, part of a student team that created a zero-gravity pollination experiment for NASA.

They drove through Rocket Park, past the rusting, 363-foot-long Saturn V moon rocket displayed on its side like a fallen colossus. Their Jeep rolled up to one of the nondescript buildings on the campus and parked near the entrance. They watched for passing cars or prying eyes, but Roberts was confident that they were in the clear; he'd done surveillance to time the guards' shift change. Roberts and Fowler used their security card keys to open the door. They strode down the familiar hall while Saur remained on the lookout in the Jeep.

One of Roberts' mentors at NASA was the prominent astrobiologist Everett Gibson. Now the young man was trying to break into the scientist's laboratory, but a Cypher Lock, which requires a code to open, blocked the entry.

It was no match for these gifted science students. They eventually guessed the right code and opened the lock. They doubled back to the Jeep, threw up the lift gate and pulled down the dolly they had just bought at Wal-Mart.

For a safe that looked like a file cabinet, it was unexpectedly heavy. Roberts bruised his arm trying to wrestle the 600-pound box onto the dolly. They rolled it out to the Jeep, locking the door behind them.

The Jeep was sagging, but they drove it out of NASA without being searched. They checked into a nearby motel, where they found they couldn't open the safe without the right codes. But the young problem-solvers had brought a power saw. It took hours to cut the safe open, yet no one knocked on their door to complain about the racket.

Whether it was for love or money, or just the thrill of it all, Roberts' audacious scheme was sheer lunacy—and it worked. The safe yielded a uniquely American treasure: 101 grams of lunar samples collected on the six Apollo moon landings, with the curatorial forms that confirmed their authenticity. The safe also contained a Martian meteorite that hinted at life on the red planet. They had hit the jackpot.

But with moon rocks on their minds, and dollar signs in their eyes, they didn't see the obvious craters on the landscape.

*

Priceless Moon Rocks Now Available!!!

"Orb Robinson" orb_robinson@hotmail.com

If you have an interest in purchasing a rare and historically significant piece of the moon, and would like more information, then please contact me by e-mail and leave your contact information and an explanation of your interest.

Sincerely,

Orb

*

The stars had always beckoned to Thad Ryan Roberts. But when he arrived at the University of Utah in the fall of 1995, he says, the observation dome at the top of the South Physics building hadn't been used in seven years.

"Because I was excited, the supervisor showed me an old telescope," Roberts says. "I tore apart the motor drive and cleaned it up. We could look at the moon. I fell in love with it."

Roberts, just under 6 feet, appears taller because of his alert outdoorsman's posture. The charisma that comes with confidence verging on cockiness makes it evident why he got the attention of his professors.

"I always thought him to be extremely hard-working," says Lynn Higgs, the undergraduate advisor in the physics department. Higgs was so impressed that he sponsored Roberts to run the observatory and later told him about the NASA co-op program. "His goal was to be the first astronaut on Mars," Higgs says. "He had the most potential."

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 résumé," 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."

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."

"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."* Researcher Jessica Gelt contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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