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Scheme To Sell Hot Moon Rocks Foiled

A man charged with trying to peddle stolen NASA moon rocks in Florida studied physics at the University of Utah and wanted to be an astronaut, the school said.

Thad Ryan Roberts, 25, was one of three space center employees arrested along with another man in an alleged plot to sell stolen moon rocks for $1,000 to $5,000 a gram. A 600-pound safe full of moon rocks and meteorites was stolen from the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Undercover FBI agents arrested Roberts, 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.

Valy Vardeny, chairman of the University of Utah physics department, said Roberts was well-regarded within the department and it was widely known that he dreamed of becoming an astronaut.

"He is a good kid," Vardeny said. "I don't know what happened."

Undercover agents received an e-mail tip in May and started communicating with a person offering moon rocks, FBI agent James Jarboe said.

Investigators say Roberts offered to sell the rocks for $1,000 to $5,000 a gram. Undercover agents set up a meeting in Orlando this past weekend to complete the purchase.

Special Agent Wayne Nichols Nance Jr. said 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.

Vardeny said Roberts volunteered three or four hours every Wednesday to serve as head of the university's telescope observatory and shared his love of astronomy with others.

Physicist Richard Price, who taught Roberts in the spring of 2001, described the student as having a true passion for learning. He said Roberts helped out on research projects and seemed sociable and outgoing.

"He was a very technically good student who had a lot of energy," Price said. "It's a surprise for a lot of us here."

Roberts spent several summers working at NASA, most recently with geologists at the Johnson Space Center's Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Division.

"There are so many potential adventures to be had in this building," Roberts wrote on a NASA Web page that the space agency has purged now from its servers. "I've been able to break real Apollo moon rocks and catalog them. I have also been learning how to make thin sections of meteorites and moon rocks for scientific distribution."

On his university web site, Roberts listed three majors: physics, anthropology and geology.

Coralie Alder, public relations director for the university, said the school could not confirm Roberts' majors or his class year, but did confirm that he was an undergraduate teaching assistant in the physics department.

On his web site, Roberts listed himself as an Eagle Scout, president and founder of the University of Utah Astronomical Society, a member of the Salt Lake Astronomical Society and a volunteer for the Utah Museum of Natural History. He said he was a Utah native and a licensed private pilot.

Patti Carpenter, a spokeswoman for the Utah Museum of Natural History, said Roberts volunteered at the museum in spring 2001.

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