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Kristin Murphy, Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Former NASA college intern Thad Roberts stole rock samples taken from the lunar surface.

SALT LAKE CITY — Thad Roberts' 2002 theft of NASA moon rocks seems to have all the makings of a best-selling novel or summer blockbuster: A daring heist from a government lab, romance and a young man on the run.

At least that's what Ben Mezrich, author of "Sex on the Moon: The Amazing Story Behind the Most Audacious Heist in History," thinks.

Roberts, who grew up in Clearfield, pleaded guilty in 2002 to stealing moon rocks from various Apollo missions — valued at the time between $2.5 million and $7 million — while working as an intern at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. He also admitted to stealing dinosaur bones and fossils from the Natural History Museum in Salt Lake City while he was attending the University of Utah.

After stashing the rocks beneath a hotel mattress — the genesis of the book's title — Roberts was apprehended in an FBI sting while trying to sell the items over the Internet.

He was sentenced to more than eight years in federal prison but was released early in  2008. Since that time, he has been tutoring physics to U. students, enjoying life and working on his research, he told the Deseret News Friday. He hasn't read the finished version of the book of his crimes, which hit stores earlier this month, but said he was consulted on earlier drafts.

"He did a fairly good job trying to get in someone else's head," Roberts said of reading himself as a character. "I think of myself in a different way than he thinks of me."

Roberts talked, relatively unfazed, about the attention the book is getting and the likelihood of seeing his illegal escapades play out on the big screen.

"You never really think that a movie is going to be made about you," he said. "It's going to be weird, slightly uncomfortable, but it's a public story already anyway."

He said he served his time and has moved on from the experience. After hating himself for two years, Roberts said he either had to forgive himself or kill himself.

Roberts described the transition of leaving Utah for his internship at NASA as entering a "whole new world." He said he was sheltered as a child and became immersed in the experiences and opportunities that his new life allowed.

"I really ate it up, I was loving it." he said. "It helped me come out of my shy mode, too. It just kind of got crazy after that."

Co-workers at the space center would joke about selling moon rocks to fund projects, Roberts said, and in time he began to ask himself if he "could" pull off a heist. Later, his thoughts turned to whether he "should."

"It wasn't really a serious thought like, 'I'm going to,'" he said.

But after telling his idea to a girlfriend, she replied, "Wow, that sounds so romantic." Hearing that, Roberts said, sealed the deal for him.

When asked about how much planning went into the crimes, Roberts replied, "I guess not enough."

"We got out of there with the moon rocks but I was a total nerd," he said. "I had no underground connections. I had no idea how to go about selling something illegal."

Roberts and two other NASA employees stole a 600-pound safe containing the lunar samples and were arrested in Orlando a little more than a week later. A fourth individual was also convicted for setting up the online sales of the items.

According to the FBI's website, the moon rocks were contaminated to the point of being rendered useless to the scientific community and three decades of hand-written notes by a NASA scientist were destroyed. 

The book — the latest from the Hollywood-ready author whose former titles were the inspirations for "21" and last summer's Oscar-nominated "The Social Network" — has already been optioned for a film adaption by Sony and has received the full spectrum of critical response. National Public Radio deemed the novel "one of the summer's most fun reads" while the New York Times published a scathing review criticizing the "increasing myopia of (Mezrich's) storytelling."

"He no longer pretends to be telling true stories. He fakes and pads so excitably that his own tricks are better than his characters," writes New York Times scribe Janet Maslin. "Yet for all his swagger, and after a dozen books, this author is becoming most popular just as he runs out of new ideas."

Roberts, who does not get any money from the book, said Mezrich visited him to get information and later emailed questions to him. Mostly, however, Mezrich relied on FBI and NASA records in his research for "Sex on the Moon."

After having a lot of time to think about his crimes while in prison, he says he still enjoys adventure — but in measured, healthy ways. Roberts participates in a group called Team Death Punch, made up of mostly University of Utah students, that engages in thrill-seeking activities like skydiving and spelunking.

"We go do everything we can possibly do," he said.

Roberts remains involved in academia. He said he is currently working on a theory of physics that he developed primarily in prison that challenges assumption about space and is related to the concept of string theory. In the future, Roberts said he might like to be a university professor.

"I really like teaching," Roberts said.

E-mail: benwood@desnews.com