L.A. Teen's Stolen Rocket Finally Makes Reentry

Times Staff Writer

The man who lived in Dorene Tuggle's rental property kept the backyard a mess: littered with old lawn mowers, clothes, containers -- mostly just junk.

When the man moved, Tuggle was left to clean up the place -- and in doing so she uncovered a stolen treasure. Sitting amid the junk was a heavy black case with a phone number and note on the outside: "This is a high powered rocket."

"All I could think of was the rockets they use in war," Tuggle said. She dared not open it. Instead, she called the number.

In a few hours, 17-year-old David Roy was at the property, on West 36th Place in Jefferson Park, to retrieve the rocket and all it represents. It had taken the teenager years to design and build the high-powered, high-performance rocket he named Vertigo. It had taken a thief one night to steal it from him.

Now, after a two-month absence, the rocket is his again.

"I'm just happy to get it back," David said Tuesday. "I'm happy I can fly it again."

Los Angeles Police Det. Jeana Franco said the theft is still under investigation. She called its return to David an exceptional event.

"It just seemed like fate, almost," Franco said. "This meant a lot to this kid and, all of a sudden, somebody finds it and actually calls.... He was thrilled."

The saga of the rocket began in July when it was stolen from the Roys' home at the time, on West 35th Place, also in Jefferson Park. The family discovered the theft the next morning, hours before the teenager was scheduled to travel to Florida and use the rocket in a national competition.

The thief had also taken a VCR, CD player and CDs. But the rocket, which was disassembled and packed in the case, had little value to anyone except David, whose passion is rocketry and robotics. He hopes to study aeronautical engineering or mechanical engineering at Caltech.

Rocketry has been part of the teenager's life since he was 7. He shared his passion with his father, Ernie Roy, a beloved science teacher who later became principal of King/Drew Medical Magnet High School. The two spent weekends perfecting their creations and dreaming of entering one of David's in a national competition.

In 2001 Ernie Roy died of cancer and David Roy began working on Vertigo.

Making it to the finals of the NAACP ACT-SO competition was an accomplishment in itself. But after the theft, David was forced to compete at the national level without his project.

"It was pretty hard to explain the different parts without the actual rocket," he said.

He did not win, but left with business cards and contacts, and the hope of entering the competition again next year.

A Times story and other news accounts about the incident drew offers of donations of rocket parts and other assistance. Others offered their sympathies and encouraged him to keep pursuing the dream. Family and friends hoped the thief would see the news accounts and abandon the rocket where it might easily be found.

"I was praying that the rocket would be found, just to restore his faith in humankind and in our community," David's mother, Cassandra Roy, said.

Believing the rocket was "a goner," the teenager was making plans to build another. Then, on Monday, while at Crenshaw High School, where she is an assistant principal, Cassandra Roy received a message from Tuggle. Roy called Tuggle back, then called police, who confirmed that the rocket had been found.

While David sat in his mother's office doing his Advanced Placement physics homework, she cried as she shared the news.

"I have to tell you something."

"Is it bad?"

"It's good."

"They found my rocket?"

"Yes, they found your rocket."

A cheer went up as co-workers celebrated with the Roys.

"God's goodness is unending and unfailing," Cassandra Roy said.

The rocket is in good shape "both cosmetically and structurally," David said. The only items missing are Allen wrenches and towels he kept in the case

In the rocketry community, Vertigo is David's signature work. The 7-foot-tall rocket has reached 705 mph and altitudes of 35,000 to 40,000 feet, he said.

"People really knew that rocket. People knew it was mine. It's really quite a sight to see."

Although the rocket was found on Tuggle's property, it is not certain who placed it there because the backyard is not secure, Franco said. "You can walk right in off the street," she said.

Tuggle, 76, had not known the significance of the rocket. In making the call, she was simply trying to do what she thought was right.

Tuggle is a retired children's librarian for the city of Los Angeles who once worked at the Washington Irving branch. A member of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, she spends part of her time helping with food and clothing giveaways to needy people.

Her days are also spent trying to find housing and assistance for a woman who is ailing and homeless. For now, the woman is living in Tuggle's house, where the rocket was found.

"If I can help somebody as I travel along the way, then my living won't be in vain," Tuggle said, quoting the lines of a gospel classic. "That's my saying.... I thank the Lord I was able to do it."

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