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Heist of moon rocks unravels in Orlando

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and the crew of Apollo 11 scooped up nearly 48 pounds of rocks after traveling a quarter-million miles to the moon.

On Saturday, exactly 33 years to the day after Armstrong's giant leap for mankind, federal agents descended on a Sheraton hotel in Orlando to get some of the rocks back.

Three student employees at the Johnson Space Center in Houston spirited away a 600-pound safe 10 days ago containing about $1-million worth of the lunar samples, court documents say. An ad on the Internet promising moon rocks at the right price led federal agents to the three students and a fourth cohort.

Thad Ryan Roberts, 25, Tiffany Brooke Fowler, 22, and Gordon Sean McWhorter, 26, all appeared in federal court in Tampa on Monday. Shae Lynn Saur, 19, was arrested in Houston. They all face one count of conspiracy, although more charges could follow.

Roberts, a student at the University of Utah, worked in the center's neutral buoyancy lab, a NASA spokeswoman said. He was in his fourth stint at the center. Saur was a summer intern in the engineering department. Fowler was an intern in life sciences. All have been fired.

McWhorter was not employed at the center. He told the federal judge he had just returned from backpacking in Oregon and lived a "vagabond" lifestyle with very few assets.

According to court records, the suspects hatched their plan and even advertised the rocks on the Internet two months before the theft took place.

In May, a tipster in Belgium alerted the FBI in Tampa to an advertisement placed on the Mineralogy Club of Antwerp's Web site soliciting anyone with "interest in purchasing a rare and historically significant piece of the moon." The tipster also received an e-mail from someone calling themselves "Orb Robinson" asking if he was interested in buying moon rocks. Robinson was later identified as Thad Roberts, court documents state.

The FBI began sending e-mails through the tipster to Roberts to set up prices and ways to verify that the rocks were authentic. Eventually, the FBI had the tipster tell Robinson that his sister-in-law, "Lynn Briley," would be willing to make the first transaction. Briley was really an undercover FBI agent.

Roberts wrote that he expected his take to be about $250,000.

"The same law that makes it illegal to sell Apollo lunar rocks also for our mutual benefit makes them quite rare and valuable," Roberts wrote in one exchange, court documents say.

Later he wrote: "I would like to stress that this is the WORLDS (sic) LARGEST private Apollo rock collection, not to mention the ONLY VERIFIABLE Apollo rock collection."

On July 13, the 600-pound safe disappeared from a scientist's lab at the center, although no one noticed it missing until two days later.

The bulk of the moon rocks _ 842 pounds were brought back from all the Apollo missions _ are kept in a highly secured area at the center, said Lance Carrington, assistant inspector general for investigations at NASA.

Scientists at the center check out small amounts of the rocks for research performed in less secured labs. Those samples are placed in safes overnight, Carrington said.

According to court documents, Roberts, Fowler and Saur bought the combinations to the building, the lab and the safe, and broke in late at night. The documents did not disclose who sold them the combinations.

When the safe combination didn't work, they stole the entire thing, placed it in a Jeep Cherokee and drove to a motel room outside Houston, court documents state.

After opening the safe, the trio began matching the lunar samples to the authenticating documents, which they also stole, the records state.

A few days later, Roberts and the undercover agent agreed to meet at Italianni's restaurant in Orlando to make the transaction, court documents said.

Roberts, Fowler and McWhorter met with the undercover agent and her "husband" Saturday night. Roberts talked about how he and his cohorts had stolen about a quarter-pound of the rocks and brought them to the Sheraton, according to court documents. The agent said she had $100,000 to buy as many as the rocks as possible.

Eventually, they all drove to the Sheraton to complete the deal. Federal agents were waiting to make the arrests.

James Jarboe, special agent in charge of the FBI's Tampa office, said he was confident the agents retrieved all the stolen rocks, which he called "national treasures." They are being tested just to make sure, he said.

In 15 years on the job, Carrington had not heard of anyone stealing moon rocks from the center. Many people have tried to sell rocks that turned out to be fake, he said.

Interns and other student employees have low-level clearance to labs and other parts of the center where research is conducted, said NASA spokeswoman Kylie Moritz. They do not have routine access to highly sensitive areas like mission control. Carrington said the center will provide more security for the rocks while trying to keep them available to scientists.

"It's a delicate balance between research and security," he said.

_ Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Graham Brink can be reached at (813) 226-3365 or brinksptimes.com.

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