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Judge spares NASA interns from prison time

http://www.jewishworldreview.com | (KRT) Two NASA interns convicted of stealing moon rocks worth at least $5.1 million last summer avoided prison Wednesday, thanks to their remorse, academic achievement and lack of criminal records.

Shae Saur and Tiffany Fowler each received three years of probation when U.S. District Judge Anne C. Conway ruled society would be better served by having the young women continue their studies.

"If this isn't a case of aberrant behavior I don't know what is," Conway said during their sentencing hearings in federal court in Orlando.

Saur, 20, an A-student, completed two years of college credits during her last two years of high school in Beaumont, Texas. A student at Lamar University, she was in the midst of her second NASA engineering internship when she got into trouble.

Fowler, 23, had just graduated with a degree in biology from Texas Lutheran University when she received the prestigious appointment for a NASA internship. A former Junior College Distinguished Academic All-American, she had been a track and volleyball star in Odessa, Texas.

They were arrested in July 2002 after Thad Roberts, a fellow summer intern at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, persuaded them to join him in a theft that rocked NASA's research community.

The trio broke into a laboratory on July 13, 2002, and carried away a cabinet filled with research notes and a 600-pound safe containing about four ounces of moon rock fragments and pieces of meteorites.

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An investigation by the FBI showed Saur and Fowler were minor players who were lured to join the conspiracy by Roberts, 26, a charismatic, thrill-seeking colleague.

Held without bail in the Lake County Jail since his arrest, Roberts has been writing an autobiographical screenplay about the heist, according to testimony.

Taking part in the crime ended promising career paths that might have led the women to become astronauts. The convictions exclude them from many fields of science where felons who stole research materials would not be welcome.

"Being an astronaut is something I had planned to do and aspired to do my entire life. My own actions have shattered that dream," Saur said before being sentenced. "I regret everything that I've done, and I never regretted anything more."

Fowler, Roberts, and a fourth conspirator, Gordon McWhorter, were arrested in Orlando when they tried to sell the collection to FBI agents posing as rock collectors. Saur was arrested afterward in Texas.

They were charged with conspiracy to commit theft and interstate transportation of stolen property. Saur, Fowler and Roberts pleaded guilty in December.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Rachelle DesVaux Bedke had intended to hold a hearing to set the true market value of the stolen material to establish the enormity of the crime. But the hearing was dropped after defense lawyers agreed to stipulate that the moon rocks alone were worth at least $5.1 million.

That value was based on the $50,800-a-gram cost that taxpayers paid in 1973 dollars to collect the specimens during Apollo lunar missions in the 1960s and 1970s. In 2003 dollars, each gram would be worth $206,000 or about $21 million, according to data provided by the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank.

"I would liken it to owning a piece of Plymouth Rock, but on an interplanetary scale," said Robert Pearlman, editor of collectspace.com, an internet site for collectors of space memorabilia. "I would say it would be worth much more than that if it was offered legally."

A chip of a Martian meteorite stolen in the heist was valued at $1.8 million.

Known as "ALH84001," the meteorite is thought by many scientists to show signs of possible life on Mars.

The ramifications of the theft went beyond dollar value.

Stolen along with the extraterrestrial specimens were notebooks containing 33 years of research by a senior NASA scientist. They have not been recovered. The scientist, Everett K. Gibson Jr., has declined to comment on the damage done to his life's work until after Roberts and McWhorter, 27, are sentenced later this year.

Conway announced from the bench Wednesday that she is considering giving Roberts a harsher than recommended sentence for stealing what she described earlier as "national treasures."

Roberts and McWhorter, who was convicted at trial, face up to 25 years in prison. McWhorter is set to be sentenced Aug. 27. Roberts will follow in September.

Conway said she may sentence Roberts to a second, consecutive term in prison for an unrelated theft of dinosaur bones in his home state of Utah.

In sentencing Saur and Fowler to less than recommended punishment, Conway used a legal provision that recognizes aberrant behavior and lack of participation in the planning of a non-violent crime.

The two women could have received about four years in prison. With credit for helping the prosecution of McWhorter and less time for aberrant behavior, they will serve six months of house arrest as part of their probation, perform 150 hours of community service and pay back their part or all of $9,000 of restitution to NASA.

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© 2003, The Orlando Sentinel Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services