'Sex On The Moon' a fascinating tale of a cosmic heist
Published Thursday, August 4, 2011 11:03AM EDT
When author Ben Mezrich got a call about a convicted moon rock thief who had just gotten out of prison and had a story to tell, he immediately knew it was the type of yarn he would love to spin.
Mezrich's previous books have explored fascinating subjects such as the murky origins of Facebook ("The Accidental Billionaires"), and a successful scam to outsmart casinos at blackjack ("Bringing Down The House").
Both of those books have been turned into blockbuster movies, and the story about Thad Roberts, a 25-year-old NASA co-op student who stole a 600-pound safe full of moon rocks just to impress his girlfriend of three weeks, was simply too good to pass up.
"So I flew out there and I met with him. He had just gotten out of seven-and-a-half years of federal prison, so I met him in this crowded hotel lobby in case he was crazy. And he was the nicest guy who just happened to have done something crazy and insane," Mezrich told CTVNews.ca.
After a year of interviews, research and writing, "Sex on the Moon: The Amazing Story Behind the Most Audacious Heist in History" has now hit bookstore shelves.
The book traces the incredible story of would-be astronaut Roberts from his difficult childhood growing up in a harsh, fundamentalist Mormon family in Utah, to falling in love, going to university and eventually pursuing his dream to become an astronaut at NASA.
Along the way, of course, he eventually pulls off an incredible heist at what is supposed to be one of America's most secure facilities, sparks an FBI manhunt, and finally gets busted in 2002 after sending out a spam-like email soliciting buyers for the stolen moon rocks that the FBI says are worth $21 million.
The book's title comes from the fact Roberts and his then-girlfriend celebrated their heist in an intimate fashion, with the moon rocks jammed under the mattress of their motel room bed, thereby becoming the world's first couple to have "sex on the moon."
"He was nothing, he had nothing, and he just wanted to impress people," Mezrich said, when asked about Roberts' motivation.
Mezrich said it took time to draw the full tale out of his subject.
"It took a year. It took a long time to get him to trust me," Mezrich said. "And also I filed with the FBI, through the Freedom of Information Act, and got thousands of pages of files. So in the beginning he wasn't as forthcoming and it took a long time to get him to really open up."
The story had largely escaped media attention when Roberts was arrested in 2003. But because the FBI's files were so complete, Mezrich had an incredible trove of information to draw from.
From transcripts taken from wires that were worn by agents, to detailed reports of the contents of Roberts' pockets when he was arrested and the results of a search of his home, Mezrich had thousands of pages of detailed documents to use as building blocks in the construction of his narrative.
The information allowed him to tell the story not only from Roberts' perspective, but that of the agents who tracked him down. In fact, Mezrich said, Roberts was somewhat annoyed that the FBI agent who eventually busted him became such a focal point of the book.
The FBI files also allowed him to steer Roberts back on track when his version of events began to border on the fictional.
"When he was saying things that weren't accurate I could come to him and say 'listen, I know this is what happened here,' and that would make him open up more," Mezrich said.
"In the beginning he wasn't very accurate but as we got deeper into the process and he realized the level of research I was doing he became pretty open."
Roberts even gave a large collection of letters to Mezrich that he had written to his accomplice and then-girlfriend, from prison. They had all been returned, unopened.
"I think it's a great touch to see his own words and you see he's a little delusional. I mean, when you read the letters you're like 'Whoa, he knew this girl for three weeks!'" Mezrich said.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the story is the ending. How did a smart, clever, capable young man such as Roberts, who managed to pull of an incredible heist, then make the seemingly obvious mistake of sending out a mass email, essentially advertising his crime?
It was this action that raised the suspicions of a Belgian rock collector, and eventually led to an FBI sting that resulted in Roberts' arrest.
"My only answer to that is he really wasn't a criminal. He didn't think through the after-effects. I asked him dozens of times over the year, 'how did you think you were going to get away with this?' And he said it just wasn't part of the thought process," Mezrich said.
"He only thought of it as a college prank, he thought 'Even if I do get caught, what's the worst they'll do to me? I'll get kicked out of the program.'"
Incredibly, Roberts hasn't given up on his dream of one day going to space. Though NASA's doors are undoubtedly forever closed to him, he is now completing his PhD in hopes of working in space exploration, through the private sector.
"I think he's a very nice, smart guy who did something crazy," Mezrich said. "I think he does have the capacity to be very impulsive but I hope he'll pull himself together and do good things with his life. But yeah, I definitely do like the guy."