Four charged in alleged plot to sell stolen moon rocks from the Apollo missions

Tuesday, July 23rd 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) _ Three space center employees and another man were charged in an alleged plot to sell stolen moon rocks from the Apollo missions for $1,000 to $5,000 a gram, the FBI said.

A 600-pound safe full of moon rocks and meteorites was stolen from the Johnson Space Center in Houston, and officials realized it was missing July 15, space center spokesman Kyle Herring said. It 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 were 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 their jobs at 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 business 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 for $1,000 to $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 complete 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 McWorter.

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.

McWorter and Roberts were being held at the Orange County Jail on Monday awaiting court hearings. Fowler and Saur were released on bail.