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Full Coverage: Columbia's stolen debris

Article index:
Ex-NASA worker fined for debris theft

November 11, 2003

— Michael Pankiewicz, a former a quality assurance specialist at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, was sentenced Monday after having plead guilty to a misdemeanor count of theft of government property earlier this year, reports the Associated Press:

  • Pankiewicz, 44, was ordered to serve one year probation and pay a $2000 fine for the theft of a 3-inch piece of Columbia debris.

  • In addition to the debris, federal agents found in his possession 15 shuttle tiles, more than 100 ceramic plugs, several large blocks of unfinished ceramic material, 18 "Flown Hardware" tags and a number of small items taken from NASA, including batteries, rubber gloves and nylon line.

  • Pankiewicz claimed the items were given to him after they were slated to be destroyed or abandoned. Authorities decided not to prosecute him for the items because they couldn't prove that they were taken illegally.

Former deputy receives probation

October 11, 2003

— Jeffrey Arriola, 35, was sentenced to a year of probation yesterday for taking two pieces of a wiring harness from the Space Shuttle Columbia, reports The Associated Press.

Arriola apologized to the families of the astronauts and to investigators, federal prosecutors said.

He could have been sentenced to up to a year in prison and fined $100,000.

NASA worker pleads guilty to theft

September 8, 2003

— A former NASA employee who plead guilty to stealing debris from the Space Shuttle Columbia has reached an agreement with prosecutors that will keep him out prison when he is sentenced in November, reports the Associated Press:

  • Michael Pankiewicz admitted to stealing a two-inch piece of debris while assisting with the recovery efforts in Texas.

  • He claims to have "accidentally" carried the debris back with him to Florida, and at some point decided to keep it.

  • In addition to turning over the stolen debris, Pankiewicz agreed to surrender pieces of other orbiters that he had claimed NASA permitted him to keep. Although the evidence wasn't clear enough to charge him with additional theft charges, investigators took possession of 15 heatshield tiles, more than 100 ceramic plugs, and 18 pieces of equipment tagged as having been flown.

  • Pankiewicz was subject to a maximum sentence of one year in prison and a $100,000 fine. Instead, prosecutors will ask only for probation.

Punishments vary for debris thieves

August 2, 2003

The following first appeared in The Daily Sentinel. It is reprinted here with permission.

by Jennifer Vose

Six months after the disintegration of the Space Shuttle Columbia over East Texas skies, the U.S. Attorney's Office has taken corrective action regarding five people accused of taking shuttle material.

Merrie Hipp of Henderson and Bradley Justin Gaudet, an SFA student, the first individuals to be arrested on charges of illegally taking shuttle debris, were offered pre-trial diversion by the U.S. Attorney's Office. They are under the supervision of a federal probation officer, and if they comply with the requirements of the diversion, their cases will be dismissed without prejudice and their records purged.

"We entered into the agreement with Hipp and Gaudet because of their history, and their particular circumstances," Assistant U.S. Attorney Malcolm Bales said. "It was not a question of whether we could prove the case, but of how best to accomplish our purposes of sanction and rehabilitation. The whole objective of these prosecutions was to publicize and educate the public that this property was not a souvenir; it was needed by NASA to determine what happened. The U.S. Attorney's Office made very few prosecutions, and timed and publicized those prosecutions to urge people to participate in the recovery effort."

Two law enforcement officers were indicted for theft of public property. Robert Hagan II, a Harrison County constable, was found not guilty after going to trial. Jeffrey Dean Arriola, a former Angelina County sheriff's deputy, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge.

A fifth person accused of taking material from the shuttle, Daniel Christopher Williams of Sabine County, pleaded guilty to a charge of felon in possession of a firearm. Williams, who was earlier convicted of unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, was found to be in possession of the weapon during an investigation into the theft of shuttle materials. Bales said that the U.S. Attorney's Office requested that Williams plead guilty to the firearms charge, which carried a stiffer penalty.

Bales said that other cases remain under investigation by the office of the inspector general of NASA, and that "less than a handful" have been turned over to the U.S. attorney's office for further investigation. There may be additional prosecutions in the future, he said.

"If we find out tomorrow that someone has this material, the investigations are still not over," Bales said. "We still expect people to contact their local police or sheriff's department and turn that in. The actual investigations of these incidents would be conducted by NASA. They are still very interested in recovering any material that shows up."

In addition to local authorities, Bales said those wishing to provide information on stolen shuttle materials may also call the Lufkin FBI office at (936) 637-3834.

Bales said one thing which made matters more complex for his office was the fact that the law did not specifically address the new issues addressed in the theft of materials from a space shuttle accident.

Those indicted for theft of shuttle materials were tried under Title 18, U.S. Code, Section 641, theft of public property. Under that statute, the value of property is defined as "face, par or market value, or cost price, either wholesale or retail, whichever is greater."

However, the shuttle materials which were believed to be taken were of much greater value than their cost, he said.

"These items had a priceless value, as far as the investigation into the crisis," Bales said. "From a lawyer's point of view, you could find that the property was either valueless or priceless. One of the things we are in the process of working on is whether or not there should be new legislation to address this type of issue."

Bales said the U.S. Attorney's Office will be asking Congress to consider passing legislation which would better define the theft of government materials, such as the debris from a space shuttle accident.

"This doesn't quite fit into the categories we would typically think about, when considering theft of government property," he said. "As far as passing a new statute, what happened with the space shuttle was a rare event, obviously, and I guess people wiser than me will have to decide whether or not to pass a law concerning it."

Constable indicted after debris trial

June 19, 2003

The following first appeared in the Longview News-Journal.

Harrison County Constable Robert Hagan II was indicted on a misdemeanor charge of making a false report to a police officer by a Harrison County grand jury Tuesday.

Hagan, who was recently found not guilty of stealing debris from the space shuttle Columbia during a federal trial, turned himself in at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, according to Harrison County District Attorney Joe Black.

During the trial in Lufkin, Hagan, who had participated in the search for debris following the explosion of the shuttle, admitted telling Harrison County Sheriff Tom McCool that he did not have any debris in his possession.

A petition to have Hagan removed from office as constable for Precinct 3 in Hallsville is still pending, Black said.

However, a request to have the petition amended based on criminal or civil charges is still forthcoming, he said Wednesday, since Hagan has been found not guilty of stealing government property in federal court.

Reached at his home Wednesday afternoon, Hagan said he could not comment on the situation, on the advice of his attorney, Eldred Smith of Longview.

Hagan, 46, was accused of taking a piece of tile and other pieces of debris while assisting with a state task force in the search effort Feb. 1, the day of the disaster, and Feb. 2 near Nacogdoches.

State may still indict Constable

June 16, 2003

Commentary by Joseph Richard Gutheinz, J.D., Texas Criminal Defense Trial Attorney, Retired NASA Office of Inspector General Senior Special Agent

Ten days ago Constable Robert Hagan, ll, was found not guilty of stealing Space Shuttle Columbia debris in a federal courthouse in Lufkin, Texas. A source knowledgeable about the case advised that Hagan may not yet be out of the woods, as the state may yet indict him for lying to Harrison County Sheriff, Tom McCool.

Harrison County District Attorney Joe Black, speaking through a secretary, advised that at present he has no comment on his on-going investigation of Hagan.

One of Hagan's defense attorney's, Stephen Smith, advised that during the trial, Black had Hagan served in a civil case to try to remove him from office, and in a collectSPACE exclusive, advised that tomorrow, Black will go before the grand jury and try to indict Hagan on a charge of making a false report to the police.

Deputy guilty of stealing debris

June 14, 2003

The following first appeared in the Lufkin Daily News. It is reprinted here with permission.

by Christine S. Diamond

A former Angelina County sheriff's deputy on Friday pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of stealing debris from the space shuttle Columbia.

Jeffrey Dean Arriola, 35, was originally set to stand trial on Tuesday in Beaumont on two felony charges. Instead, on Friday he pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor charge of taking government property worth less than $1,000.

"Jeffery started out facing two 10-year prison sentences," said Arriola's attorney John Heath Jr. "As of today, the sentence is capped at one year. He is relieved. The worst-case scenario is not nearly what it was. He was looking at two felony convictions on top of the humiliation. This offense is a misdemeanor conviction that doesn't have the stigma of a felony."

Arriola, appearing at the federal courthouse in Lufkin, pleaded guilty during a video-conference hearing with U.S. Magistrate Judge Harry McKee in Tyler.

Judge McKee said he needed to be "satisfied" in his mind that Arriola was taking responsibility for stealing the debris.

"Yes, sir," Arriola testified, adding he knew at the time that he wasn't supposed to pick up debris, take it or keep it. "I should not have picked it up. I did intend to keep it."

The space shuttle Columbia disintegrated during re-entry over East Texas. The seven astronauts on board were killed.

Arriola resigned from the Angelina County Sheriff's Office after federal authorities began an investigation of whether he had taken shuttle debris.

NASA investigator Sheila K. Brock testified that Arriola confessed to taking two pieces of debris.

"It was recovered from the porch in a hunting jacket, contained in a pill bottle wrapped in tape," Brock testified.

Arriola took investigators to his home and showed them where he placed the space shuttle debris. The debris was wrapped in tape because he was concerned about the hazards associated with the debris and his family's welfare, Brock testified.

Brock identified the pieces as back shells from the shuttle used "to harness and hold wires in place. Made to ensure the stability of the wiring at a connection point."

At the time Arriola turned the pieces over to investigators, Arriola expressed "regret and remorse," she testified.

Expressing his own satisfaction with Arriola's plea, McKee allowed him to remain free on the promise that Arriola would re-appear in four to five weeks for his sentencing.

"It's not a happy day for Jeff and his family," Heath said. "Who would have thought this would have happened? The consequences are he will not be in law enforcement.

"Jeff is eligible for probation," Heath said about the anticipated sentence. "We are hoping any period of confinement be probated."

The total maximum fine Arriola now faces was reduced from $250,000 to $100,000.

The plea agreement was struck after the prosecutors agreed to reduce the stated value of the items Arriola had taken.

"We agreed, for the purposes of this particular case, the value was under $1,000," said Assistant U.S. Attorney John Stevens. "The actual (street) value for the back shell is $10-$15."

Stevens speculated the debris might actually be worth up to $3,000 on the "thieves' market" and its value in reference to the NASA investigation is "priceless."

Both Heath and Stevens said Arriola's case and its outcome had little to do with a jury's acquittal last week of a Harrison County constable on similar charges.

"I don't think it's fair to compare what happened last week to this week," Heath said. "There are 100 different scenarios. Same category of shuttle theft, but the facts are totally different."

"This case had its own set of facts," Stevens said. "It revolved around (Arriola's) unusual state of remorse. From the outset, he was contrite and immediately resigned (from the sheriff's office).

"It is too bad. But he's standing up, ready to accept responsibility. It will affect his career goal in law enforcement. But he is picking up the pieces and will go forward that's good. I wish more defendants were like that. I couldn't punish him anymore than he's punishing himself," Stevens said.

Stephen F. Austin State University student Bradley Justin Gaudet, also charged with stealing shuttle debris, had been set to stand trial next week in Lufkin. The trial was moved to Beaumont and has now been postponed, according to officials.

Two other people also have been charged with stealing debris and are awaiting trial.

Gutheinz: Hagan trial, day four

June 7, 2003

Commentary by Joseph Richard Gutheinz, J.D., Texas Criminal Defense Trial Attorney, Retired NASA Office of Inspector General Senior Special Agent

For two days Constable Robert Hagan ll took the stand in his own defense, and maintained his story that he did not steal a tile from the Space Shuttle Columbia debris field. Those in favor of the prosecution told me he fumbled, and those in favor of the defense told me he demonstrated that he was the honest man most people in Harrison County knew him to be.

Then the defense rested, jury instructions were read, closing arguments given, and a little over two hours after deliberations began, the verdict: not guilty.

The government had everything in this case, superb special agents from NASA Office of Inspector General and a sister organization, the F.B.I.; two sharp Assistant United States Attorneys, a Who's Who in Harrison County and Nacogdoches County law enforcement coming in to testify against Hagan, two real NASA rocket scientists, and an expert on NASA collectibles.

The defense had two attorneys and a handful of witnesses who testified about Hagan's reputation for telling the truth.

If the battle was to be won predicated on resources and manpower, then the government should have won. If the case was to be decided on the credibility of witnesses, predicated simply on the prosecution's inherent advantage, the government should have won. If the case was to be decided on public sentiment throughout this country or media hype, the prosecution should have won.

Sitting in court today, I spied the reason why the defense won: a stately older woman sitting in the back row, back erect, eyes clear and proud, looking on. Never flinching, she was always focused on the defense table, at her husband Eldred Smith and son Stephen Smith.

Ruby Smith said, with a distinct Texas accent, that she came to court every day to watch her husband and son. When her husband finished his closing arguments, she sparred with him jokingly about the length of his speech, and he rolled back on his heels essentially pointing the finger at his son who spoke before him.

Her confident demeanor reinforced her family, and was a major factor in my opinion, for David defeating Goliath; although certainly Eldred and Ruby Smith would say that it was because their friend Constable Hagan II was innocent, as both advised me was their belief.

When I asked Eldred Smith how many years he had been an attorney, a broad smile crossed Ruby's face as he responded, "53 years." Ruby said some day soon Eldred may retire, and it is nice to see him have one more big case; and big it was!

A Lufkin convenience store attendant, when asked about the case, said it was the biggest case she had seen, adding she had never had more people ask her for directions to the Federal Court House. Barbara Williams and her father J.W. Laws, 81, came to court every day to watch the proceedings, and Mr. Laws was treated like a regular by the otherwise surly and businesslike bailiff.

Prior to the verdict being read, Ms. Williams and Mr. Laws, a Coast Guard veteran of World War ll, with a flag proudly pinned to his lapel, said they believed that Constable Hagan ll was guilty, but added that they had great faith in the jury, and if the jury said he was innocent, then that too would be their opinion.

Barbara Williams had a problem with discerning what the monetary value of the 9 pound shuttle tile fragment would be, but added it is also invaluable. Both Ms. Williams and Mr. Laws said that Sheriff McCool's testimony about Constable Hagan ll was the most damaging to the defense, because it showed that the defendant lied to the Sheriff, and he would only do that if he were guilty of theft.

There were a number of tactical mistakes by the prosecution, and which the defense capitalized on. First, they charged Hagan with theft, but he never removed the shuttle tile from his government-issued vehicle, so essentially it was always in the possession of the Constable's Office.

Second, he was charged with the wrong offense, in my opinion. Obstruction of Justice would have made a lot more sense.

Third, Sheriff McCool, regardless of how honorable and well intended his motives, should not have confronted Hagan and searched his car for the debris, because they represented two different political parties in Harrison County. This political rivalry between Hagan and McCool was a major part of the defense case, and may have doomed whatever hope the prosecution had of winning.

Fourth, the prosecution offered competing theories for the value of the tile, which could have implanted the seed in the jurors' minds that if the prosecution doesn't know how much the tile is worth, how should they.

After Judge Thad Heartfield had the verdict read, all of the special agents and government attorneys showed true Texas cordiality, and with smiles on their faces, they each shook Constable Hagan's hands as well as the hands of the defense attorneys.

The media, agents, judge, bailiffs, jurors, and observers all departed, and the only people left standing on the street were the now vindicated Constable, his girlfriend and Ruby and Eldred Smith. Looking back at them as I walked away, with the court house as a backdrop, it looked very much like a scene from high noon, but this time the lawman was not alone.

Officer cleared in looting case

June 7, 2003

The following first appeared in The Daily Sentinel. It is reprinted here with permission.

by Christine S. Diamond

An East Texas jury"s verdict of "not guilty" rendered Friday evening in the first space shuttle Columbia debris theft case to go to trial should have little effect on the prosecution of future cases, officials said.

"We're not discouraged," Assistant U.S. Attorney Malcolm Bales said Friday evening. "Every case has unique facts and evidence related to the proof."

The facts involved in Harrison County Pct. 3 Constable Robert Hagan II's case are unrelated to the remaining shuttle theft cases awaiting prosecution, he said.

Hagan on Friday said he hopes to continue his work as a constable now that the charges of stealing shuttle debris are behind him.

"I'm very excited and ready for this to be over with," Hagan said in front of the federal courthouse in Lufkin. "Hopefully I can keep doing my constable job."

Bales said he was disappointed in Friday's verdict.

"I feel very strongly about the activity Mr. Hagan was accused of committing, but I respect the jury's decision," said Bales, who at learning the jury's decision had promptly crossed the courtroom to shake Hagan's hand. "I wish Mr. Hagan nothing but goodwill."

Bales described Hagan to jurors Friday as "a nice man who did a bad thing."

U.S. Attorney Matthew Orwig said he was disappointed in the verdict, as well, "but I accept the verdict of the jury. This office has a history of holding law enforcement officers accountable to a higher standard of professionalism and integrity. I thought the evidence was overwhelming that Mr. Hagan fell short of that standard."

Before stepping down the courthouse steps to join his girlfriend for their journey back to Hallsville, Hagan told reporters that he did not regret his actions in the recovery efforts after the Columbia broke apart over Texas on Feb. 1.

He did, however, regret decisions he made later that first week of February after realizing he had several pieces of shuttle debris still in his possession, he said. One thing he would have done differently, he said, would have been to make an immediate phone call to his supervisor, Thomas Keith Rodgers of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, upon discovering the debris. He also would have acted differently in his interview with Harrison County Sheriff Tom McCool, he said.

Hagan admitted on the stand Friday morning that his offer to the sheriff to search his patrol car was an attempt to throw him off. Hagan never denied lying to the sheriff about his possessing debris. He claimed he lied because it was none of the sheriff's business and the two had prior political conflicts.

During his trial this week, Hagan was served with papers from the Harrison County District Attorney's Office notifying him of an attempt to remove him from office for committing a federal offense, according to Hagan's attorney, Eldred Smith.

Smith addressed the issue Wednesday, saying the move was an additional attempt by the Harrison County "clique" to embarrass Hagan in front of the jurors.

Two years ago, the DA served Hagan in a similar attempt to remove him from office because he had not completed the required training hours to serve as a peace officer since the time he was elected constable. Prior to being elected, Hagan worked for 22 years in telemarketing. Smith said Hagan fulfilled those required hours and the charge was dismissed.

Following the jury's verdict, U.S. District Judge Thad Heartfield approved Bales" request to release its shuttle debris exhibits to NASA.

In order to find Hagan guilty, jurors had to determine that he stole the debris and that it was worth more than $1,000.

Professional space memorabilia broker Ian Michael Orenstein testified Thursday that a thermal shuttle tile off the space shuttle Columbia's last mission could be worth $50,000 to $100,000. The value was defined to jurors as the face, par or market (wholesale or retail, whichever is greater) value, according to Hagan's defense attorney.

Defense attorney Stephen Smith argued Friday that Orenstein's testimony on the potential value of a piece of shuttle debris was invalid because there is no legal market, nor could Orenstein testify to the existence of a demand for debris on the black market.

"It is (the government's) burden to prove the value of this destroyed shuttle tile beyond reasonable doubt," Stephen Smith argued Friday. "There is no market for Columbia debris. It will never be legal. It's a phantom (market).

"Where are you going to get something like this?" Stephen Smith asked, holding the evidence bag up before the jury. "You can't. It's a red herring."

Although the defense attorneys argued against the government's success in proving the debris had any value under the legal definition, Bales pointed to the historic value of the NASA artifact.

"He stole something important to our heritage and the NASA program," Bales argued. "Is it junk? No! Isn't it interesting that even Mr. Hagan won't concede that?"

"I feel like it had less value than it did. It's damaged," Hagan testified Friday. "Basically, I think it's scrap."

Hagan admitted on the stand Friday that he had thought it would be nice to keep a piece of debris as a memento of his service that tragic weekend - "nice to have as a remembrance of being out there, not a souvenir. I wasn't looking for a souvenir... It was just a thought I had, Mr. Bales."

Why then, Bales asked Hagan, were none of the pieces of debris Hagan kept among the 90 digital images of shuttle debris on Hagan's discs?

"It does look bad," Hagan answered.

Orenstein, president of Aurora Galleries International, told Heartfield that he had 20 years experience in the space memorabilia field.

"I'm a broker between buyer and seller," Heartfield explained. "I run an auction house in Los Angeles. Two times a year I hold an auction. People come from all over the world. I have handled a lot of material from Columbia - not flight 107."

The memorabilia Orenstein handles is attained and sold legally, he testified. Sources of space-related material include NASA-auctioned surplus, retired NASA employees, contractor employees and estate sales. When determining a potential sale, Orenstein told Heartfield he first considers the authenticity of the material, researches its background and determines whether the seller wishes to sell the item whole, in pieces or as a powder.

Although he does not sell illegal space memorabilia, such as debris from the Challenger or moon rocks, Orenstein testified he knows a market exists for such items, as has previously been approached about such materials as moon rocks.

"There is a history, a strong demand for the unattainable," he testified.

In the past, he testified he gave NASA information on the illegal inquiries.

Although he has not yet had requests for post-Columbia contraband, "The demand exists; there is no supply."

He testified he had observed a significant increase in the value of pre-Flight 107 Columbia paraphernalia. An autographed envelope that prior to the tragedy would be worth $100, he said, recently sold for $5,000.

As for the value of marketable shuttle tiles, Orenstein testified a tile that had never flown was worth $250-$350, whereas a flown tile was worth $500 to $1,000.

Should a piece of Columbia tile debris appear on the market legally, Orenstein testified he would recommend a price of $50,000 to $100,000. Items sold on the black market are generally less expensive than those sold legally, he testified.

Items that had touched the moon were worth the most, followed by items used by astronauts in space and items carried into space.

"Most collectors collect in series, one of everything in the area they collect," he testified.

The next two shuttle debris theft trials, for Jeffrey Dean Arriola and Bradley Justin Gaudet, are scheduled to begin June 17.

Accused constable testifies

June 6, 2003

The following first appeared in The Daily Sentinel. It is reprinted here with permission.

by Christine S. Diamond

A Harrison County constable charged with stealing debris from the space shuttle Columbia testified during his federal trial Thursday that he was never instructed not to touch or transport the debris, and that he intended to return the pieces that were in the trunk of his patrol car.

Robert Hagan II also disputed testimony that he had told other people he had been given permission to keep the debris in his car. He told jurors that what he did tell a fellow security guard, his girlfriend and coworkers was that he believed the debris he had was insignificant to the investigation into why the Columbia broke apart over Texas on the morning of Feb. 1.

Hagan was the last witness to testify Thursday afternoon before federal Judge Thad Heartfield recessed the jury for the night. The government had rested its case shortly after lunch.

Hagan said he also told his girlfriend and coworkers about how he had spent the first weekend of February volunteering with the Texas Alcohol Beverage Commission task force to aid in the space shuttle Columbia recovery efforts in Nacogdoches.

While there, he had received two assignments to go guard debris, he testified. The first he received Saturday afternoon but never made it to the assigned location, he testified. Instead, he assisted business workers and residents with marking and collecting debris, he said.

Among the many pieces of debris Hagan transported back to the Nacogdoches Law Enforcement Center that Saturday night was a plastic Brookshire Brothers grocery bag containing items of debris that a woman had left earlier that day on West Seale Street in Nacogdoches. He said he had called his supervisor, TABC Agent Thomas Keith Rodgers, to report most of the items, including the plastic bag, and to ask permission to relocate the debris.

Hagan, who arrived in Nacogdoches at 1 p.m. the day of the shuttle disaster, testified he never attended a briefing at which searchers were instructed on protocol - including whether they could touch or move any debris.

"There was so much out there," Hagan testified. "We were having to make the best decisions we could."

Conditions that caused Hagan concern, he testified, included debris in danger of being run over by automobiles, stolen in the dark of night or trampled by horses in a pasture.

"I made a phone call to Tommy (Rodgers) to ask him about the (bag of debris) left there, explaining the situation. Since it was not where the bag was from, he said I could move it and bring it in with the rest," Hagan testified. "Sgt. (Brian) Gladdis (of the National Guard) picked up the bag, I opened the trunk and he set it in there."

Between 9 and 10 p.m., Hagan testified, he returned to the sheriff's office to find his supervisor.

"I got back to the command center, went in through the back gate, pulled around and saw they had an area roped off where debris was brought in," Hagan testified. "I really couldn't see it all. I went through the back door and ran into 'Smitty' (retired TABC volunteer John Smith) and he asked me how things were going. I said I was tired and frustrated - with the lack of communication, lack of knowledge, unorganized...

"I told him about the foam (thermal tile debris) and he said it was everywhere, (that) the foam was insignificant."

Unable to find his supervisor, Hagan returned to the area he had spent most of his day collecting debris, he said. It wasn't until after midnight that he disposed of the items in the back of his patrol car, he said. For the smaller items in the bag, Hagan went in search of a box, he testified.

"I went up and asked Tommy Rodgers about the collection site in back and he informed me he was the one who originated putting it there," Hagan testified. "Not only did I not find a box, I got sidetracked talking to Tommy Rodgers. He started talking to me about rooms over at LaQuinta... He gave me directions and I grabbed an apple and banana and left."

Hagan received his second assignment Sunday morning, but upon arriving at the location found it already manned with two National Guardsmen and a Texas Department of Public Safety officer.

"I called in to tell Tommy the address I had was duplicated," Hagan testified. "I asked if it would be all right if continued on with the DPS officer. He said, 'OK, fine,' just keep him posted."

The pair spent Sunday scouring the eastern countryside of Nacogdoches County, collecting more debris and taking pictures of others, Hagan said. Later that evening, he and his supervisor and another TABC agent returned to Skillard Cemetery area to collect sensitive debris, including a 12-inch-long circuit board and a 35mm camera he had found in a horse pasture. While there, he testified, he found a bolt and "stuck it in my pocket."

After a meal at the Nacogdoches Exposition Center, Hagan testified, he returned to his home in Hallsville to shower and prepare for a nighttime security shift.

It was 11 p.m. Sunday "when I loaded my trunk in my driveway with my equipment and saw the debris for the first time," Hagan testified. "I started looking around for two other items loose in my truck."

Except for a small debris piece which he left in the passenger seat, Hagan testified he placed the rest in the plastic bag and inside the extra brown bag he had obtained earlier that day. He didn't immediately report the debris because "I figured I was going back down there Wednesday and I'd take it back with me then."

At his security job, Hagan testified he showed the debris to coworker Brad Thomas, also a deputy with the Harrison County Sheriff's Office.

"Do they know you have this stuff?" Thomas asked, according to Hagan.

"Yes, they do," he said he responded. "I'd been down there working all weekend. This was insignificant; we're looking for electronic, hydraulic (equipment from the shuttle)..."

"I never made the comment that I could keep the stuff," Hagan testified.

His security post completed at 8:15 Monday morning, Hagan testified, he went home to change into his uniform and go to work as constable. That evening, while eating dinner at his girlfriend's, Hagan testified he shared the debris with her and her daughter.

That Tuesday, he testified, he again worked both jobs. He had left the bag of debris in his trunk, he said, because it "was the safest place for it to be."

Instead of returning to Nacogdoches County Wednesday, Hagan testified he instead picked up a prisoner whom he deposited at the Harrison County Jail. Upon arriving at the jail, Hagan testified he was greeted by Harrison County Sheriff Tom McCool.

"Let my jailer book in your prisoner for you. There's something I want to talk to you about," McCool said, according to Hagan. Upon entering the sheriff's office, Hagan said, the sheriff told him, "I'm not going to beat around the bush. Have you got shuttle debris?"

"No, sir, I don't," Hagan said he responded.

Defense Attorney Eldred Smith interrupted his client to ask why Hagan lied to the sheriff.

"This was a situation I was working on with the (TABC) task force," Hagan answered. "It had nothing to do with the sheriff's office or my job as a constable. I didn't think it was any of his business... I was very uncomfortable. I didn't understand what the situation was."

The situation, described by Hagan in great detail, was the sheriff's eminent discovery of the shuttle debris stowed in the trunk of his Crown Victoria patrol car.

"I didn't trust him. I didn't feel he was there to work with me," Hagan said.

After a 20-minute discourse Hagan took the sheriff out to search his vehicle.

"I went to the passenger side because I knew the (small debris) was still there - I had wanted to put it in a smaller bag," Hagan explained. Showing it to the sheriff, Hagan testified McCool's response was, "Just open your trunk."

Hagan testified he offered to unload the trunk but the sheriff advised him not to.

"If he testified he removed the bag, it's a lie," Hagan testified against McCool's earlier testimony of events.

Back inside McCool's office, Hagan testified, the sheriff asked him who had given him permission to take the debris.

"Nobody," Hagan testified was his response. "It is stuff I collected while there, insignificant stuff. My plan was to go back there this weekend."

Seven character witnesses from Hagan's community of Hallsville testified to Hagan's honorable reputation in the community that even the accusation of stealing shuttle debris and lying to the county sheriff couldn't tarnish.

Expert says shuttle tile is 'priceless'

June 5, 2003

The following first appeared in The Daily Sentinel. It is reprinted here with permission.

by Christine S. Diamond

The value of a thermal tile that a Harrison County constable is charged with stealing from the space shuttle Columbia debris is "priceless," a NASA engineer/technician testified Wednesday afternoon.

Calvin Schomburg, a NASA technician of 38 years, told the jury in Robert Hagan II's federal trial in Lufkin that the burnt tile introduced as evidence against Hagan is from the lower portion of the Columbia, which broke apart on the morning of Feb. 1 over Texas.

"They were put on one at a time, just like a jigsaw puzzle," Schomburg said of the tile.

He identified the piece of debris as a 9-pound tile comprised of 92 percent air. He said it would cost $1,388, but while that portion of the shuttle might not have provided the key to Columbia's breakup — every piece of debris was necessary to the investigation.

Schomburg said the thermal tile in Hagan's trial was "priceless, I'd say, because we wanted everything, and (because of) the amount of money we are spending picking everything up."

The tile's value is important because the jury must find that Hagan stole a piece of government property that was worth at least $1,000. If convicted, he faces a federal prison sentence of up to 10 years and up to a $250,000 fine.

During Wednesday's proceedings, the third day of the trial, U.S. District Judge Thad Heartfield halted testimony to address the jury as it was passing around a postcard with the image of the seven fallen Columbia astronauts. He said he didn't believe that type of behavior was prudent.

"Under the circumstances of this country, world and town, what we have here is a great deal of love and sympathy for these (astronauts)," he said. But, "We're here for another day and another time. Only what occurs at this moment is to be considered by the jury."

Harrison County Sheriff Tom McCool testified Wednesday that he had intended to meet with Hagan about the allegations against him on the Thursday morning after the Columbia disaster, but decided the meeting couldn't wait.

"We had originally planned to drive to (Hagan) the next morning to visit with him to see if the reports were true," McCool said. "I felt confident they were, based on the source. That evening, watching the 6 o'clock news, it was evident authorities were having difficulty with people picking up debris. We felt perhaps we shouldn't wait... If Mr. Hagan was watching the news programs, he could become nervous and that debris become lost."

McCool and Harrison County Chief Deputy Mark Maronto met Hagan that evening in the sheriff's office.

"I asked Mr. Hagan, 'Do you have any debris from space shuttle Columbia in your vehicle?'" McCool said. "He said, 'Absolutely not.'"

After a 20-minute discussion with Hagan, McCool testified he followed Hagan out to his patrol car. The constable reached inside the passenger door and withdrew piece of black fiber from the console/ashtray area and said, "Sheriff, I forgot about this. I should have told you," McCool testified.

"I believe I made a comment at that point: 'Robert we just visited about this for 20 minutes,'" McCool said. "I went to the rear of the vehicle. He opened the trunk. He reached in and moved a yellow tarp over to the left side, exposing his equipment.

"He said 'There you are, Sheriff, you can search all you want.' I reached in and moved the tarp back to the right and there was the brown bag. I just picked it up and and looked inside. The articles — you could tell they weren't from John Deere.

"No one was angry or yelling. He admitted then to there being shuttle debris, (but) said it was insignificant to to the investigation and they said he could have it. Robert became very quiet. I advised him I would be contacting federal authorities."

There was no discussion of the amnesty period that federal authorities had begun that afternoon, McCool testified.

"My reaction was simply the possibility of hurting the investigation in regard to space shuttle Columbia," McCool testified. "My thought was, due to what Mr. Hagan told several people, including myself, he was not due to return the material."

During a voluntary meeting with several investigators, including FBI Special Agent Dennis Brady, Hagan told the men the material he had taken was insignificant to the investigation and "they" had given him permission to take it, according to court testimony.

Describing the interview with Hagan, Brady testified he applied his specialized interrogation techniques on the constable because Hagan continuously interrupted him.

"I became more dominant. I leaned forward," Brady explained. "When he left Nacogdoches, he said he forgot about the bag of debris in his trunk. He told me that as he relieved Brad Thomas (for a security guard shift the night of Feb. 2), he remembered the debris and showed it to him. He then forgot again until the minute he saw his girlfriend and then he remembered...

"He admitted that he fabricated (that he'd been given permission to take the debris), that he lied; he had no permission.

"I didn't feel I'd gotten the whole story and I was unlikely to get it the truth at any point," Brady testified. "I called him a liar and a thief unfit to wear a badge. He told me I didn't understand. I gave him a pen and blank pad to write his own story on for a judge and a jury. He asked if he could contact his lawyer. From memory, he was able to give his lawyer's work, cell and home phone numbers without prompting."

Hagan was advised by his attorney, Smith, not to continue the interview, Brady testified.

Another FBI Agent, Mervil Mason, interviewed the ex-husband of Hagan's girlfriend. Mason said the divorced couple's daughter had twice touched the debris.

Shuttle looting trial continues

June 4, 2003

The following first appeared in The Daily Sentinel. It is reprinted here with permission.

by Christine S. Diamond

A National Guardsman testified Tuesday that he helped a Harrison County constable collect space shuttle Columbia debris on the night of Feb. 1, despite NASA's warning that debris could be toxic and shouldn't be handled.

NASA's protocol in the the first days after the shuttle broke up over Texas was, according to a stream of witnesses in the federal trial in Lufkin, generally accepted as: find, record location and guard — but don't handle.

Constable Robert Hagan II, 46, is charged with stealing NASA-owned debris, a shuttle tile about the size of dinner plate with the appearance of Styrofoam. NASA contends the piece is worth $1,000. Hagan's attorney says it's trash.

Hagan, who is on trial in Lufkin, faces up to 10 years in federal prison and up to a $250,000 fine if he is convicted.

While many of the volunteer members of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission's task force, AVERT, were given specific duties such as tracking personnel or guarding debris, TABC Agent Thomas Keith Rodgers testified Tuesday morning that Hagan was able to break free after finding guards already in place at his assigned area.

Instead, Hagan roamed Nacogdoches and the surrounding countryside looking for debris as late as 1 a.m. on Feb. 2, according to Rodgers and Second Lt. Brian Gladdis, with the National Guard.

Throughout Saturday and Sunday, Rodgers testified he heard from Hagan at least 10 times by cell phone.

Gladdis testified he first met Hagan at 4 p.m. that Saturday on a street in Nacogdoches, where Gladdis and another National Guardsman were delivering drinks and snacks to another pair watching over some metallic debris in the center of the street. Next to a large pipe was a Brookshire Bros bag purportedly containing debris that an unknown woman had dropped off. After a 15-minute dialogue with the four guardsmen, Hagan took the bag and placed it in the trunk of his patrol car, Gladdis testified.

"Mr. Hagan said, 'If that debris didn't actually fall there, it's not necessary to keep it there in the road,"' Gladdis testified.

Hagan also called into the command center from his patrol car to gain permission to move the large pipe out of the center of the road, Gladdis testified.

"The two soldiers were in a dangerous situation in the middle of a road that was not blocked off, having to direct traffic and guard the debris," he said.

Although Hagan's actions weren't reflective of his original orders not to pick up or even touch debris, Gladdis testified he had no qualms or objections to following Hagan's orders.

"He seemed to be doing what needed to be done, in my eyes," Gladdis testified.

Additionally, Gladdis testified, they informed Hagan of other debris locations in the neighborhood. Between 4 and 8 p.m. Hagan collected those items in boxes and placed them in his patrol car, Gladdis testified.

Around midnight that Saturday, they came across a piece of metal that resembled the bottom of a 55-gallon drum, he testified.

"Mr. Hagan said if we had something big enough, to take it back to the law enforcement center," Gladdis testified. He said they used his personal truck.

After checking in at the Nacogdoches Sheriff's Office about 1 a.m., Sunday, Hagan was dispatched to a motel room with orders to report back to the Nacogdoches Exposition Center Sunday morning, according to court testimony. According to Rodgers, Hagan left the expo center at 7 or 8 p.m. to return to his security job in Harrison County.

Harrison County Sheriff's Office Lt. James Bradly Thomas testified Hagan, a longtime acquaintance, had the security shift after his at the local chemical plant where both men held second jobs as security guards. Thomas said that, in the guardhouse, Hagan described his shuttle recovery adventures.

"He told me he had just got back from the Nacogdoches area," Thomas said. "He told me it was a mess; there was debris everywhere. He offered to show me two items of debris in his patrol car — a bolt and white styrofoam. He said they were getting so much material, it wouldn't be significant in the investigation."

Two days later, Thomas testified that a Harrison County sheriff's dispatcher received a teletype declaring anyone withholding shuttle debris was in contempt of law. Thomas testified he had the dispatcher call to ascertain that they wanted all debris.

Upon receiving confirmation that all debris was wanted, Thomas testified he wrote a statement about his exchange with Hagan two nights before and turned it in to his supervisor.

"Wouldn't you find it strange that a person who stole something, the first person they show it to is a Harrison County sheriff's lieutenant? That he'd proudly show it to a ranking deputy?" Hagan's defense attorney Eldred Smith asked.

"Maybe unusual, but things like that have happened," Thomas testified.

Hagan is the first of five people indicted on charges of shuttle theft in the Eastern District of Texas to stand trial. Jurors will continue hearing evidence this morning.

Gutheinz: Hagan trial, day two

June 4, 2003

Commentary by Joseph Richard Gutheinz, J.D., Texas Criminal Defense Trial Attorney, Retired NASA Office of Inspector General Senior Special Agent

The case against Constable Robert Hagan, ll, alleged to have stolen Space Shuttle Columbia debris, continued Tuesday with testimony from the defendant's colleagues at the Texas Alcohol Beverage Commission: Agent Thomas Rodgers, Sgt. Allan Cameron, Lt. Trey Rusk lll and retired AVERT member John Smith.

According to a source close to the defense (who spoke Tuesday evening under the condition of anonymity), Hagan's attorneys believe that they had success with these witnesses throughout the day, as they were able to show inconsistencies between their stories.

On Wednesday, the prosecution will continue their case with witnesses from the Harrison County Sheriff's Department, before bringing forward their three expert witnesses to establish the value of the stolen tile. The destroyed tile must be appraised at $1,000 or more for there to be a felony.

It is anticipated that the defense will begin their case on Thursday, and complete on Friday.

Thus far the two federal agents present, F.B.I. Special Agent Dennis Brady, identified as the case agent by Assistant United States Attorney John Bales, and NASA Office of Inspector General Special Agent Sheila Brock, have not testified but may be still used as rebuttal witnesses. (S.A. Sheila Brock, who was a former colleague of mine, is an extremely competent agent who is capable of providing a devastating presentation against the defense.)

A verdict should be returned relatively quickly, as the jury was denied access to trial transcripts, and was further prevented them from taking notes, so to a large degree they will only take into deliberations what they know or suspect.

Gutheinz: Hagan trial, day one

June 3, 2003

Commentary by Joseph Richard Gutheinz, J.D., Texas Criminal Defense Trial Attorney, Retired NASA Office of Inspector General Senior Special Agent

In a small federal courthouse in Lufkin, Texas, I observed the first day of United States of America vs. Robert Hagan, ll, Criminal No. 9:03-CR-6. After greeting friends from the NASA Office of Inspector General, who were there working to convict Hagan, I began to question my earlier assumptions about Hagan's guilt, asking myself were they well founded or predicated on media hype.

For example, I gave a lot of credence to my belief that Hagan may be guilty, on the fact that it was a Harrison County Sheriff, Tom McCool who confronted Hagan. What I did not know, was the existence of a long standing friction between the two men, stemming from the fact that both are elected officials, but Hagan is an elected Republican and McCool is an elected Democrat.

McCool had taken aggressive action during the amnesty period to recover the Space Shuttle Columbia debris from Hagan. Had McCool waited, Hagan may have turned in all the items, within the grace period, and with time to spare.

Hagan may have safeguarded the material he found, in a similar fashion to how Sheriff Thomas Kerss of Nacogdoches safeguarded the 75 shuttle debris pieces which members of the community turned into him, prior to commencement of the recovery phase.

The United States Attorney's Office or the Grand Jury has elected to go with a single count of Title 18 USC, section 641 (Embezzlement and Theft), rather than the myriad of offenses possible, as alleged against Hagan. The prosecution is arguing that the tile fragment is worth more than comparable shuttle tile pieces for sale from the original flight of the Space Shuttle Columbia.

In an earlier essay, I addressed that shuttle tile pieces from the first shuttle mission of the Columbia, as well as discarded shuttle tiles recovered from the garbage prior to that launch, are now lawfully possessed, sold and traded. These sales vary in price, but are generally under $50.00 per transaction.

The government has argued in their indictment that the value of this shuttle tile fragment is at least $1000. According to a source close to the defendant, if the true value of the fragment allegedly in Hagan's possession was less than $1000, the case will fail, as that is the minimum required for there to be a felony.

Assistant United States Attorney John M. Bales, J.D. began the trial with his opening arguments, stating that the prosecution needed to prove that the tile belongs to NASA, that Hagan took the tile, and that Hagan knew what he was doing. He said he would also establish the value of the shuttle tile pieces, and would do so with three experts: Michael Orenstein, a "collectibles expert"; Michael Young, a NASA Engineer OV102 with United Space Alliance-Kennedy, and Calvin Schomburg, a NASA Aerospace Engineer.

The defense opened asking if Hagan had indeed been up to no good, why had he informed his colleagues in law enforcement that he had the tile in his possession? Eldred Smith, J.D. and his son Stephen Smith, J.D. are reportedly helping Hagan as a public service, pro-bono.

The balance of the day was consumed by Sheriff Kerss, as he presented a day by day account of the aftermath of the accident, including the instructions he gave not to touch anything until February 4. Hagan allegedly took the tile fragment on February 1 or 2.

CORRECTION: Contrary to what I reported earlier, though efforts have been made to force Hagan out of his job, he has not resigned, and at this point is not subject to being removed.

Gutheinz: Hagan trial to begin

June 2, 2003

Commentary by Joseph Richard Gutheinz, J.D., Texas Criminal Defense Trial Attorney, Retired NASA Office of Inspector General Senior Special Agent

Attention will turn today to a federal courthouse in Lufkin, Texas where Robert Hagan, a former Harrison County Constable will be tried for stealing debris from the Space Shuttle Columbia, according to Duncan Woodford, Public Information Officer for the United States Attorney's Office in Beaumont Texas.

Kristi Clayton, the secretary to the Honorable Judge Thad Heartfield, confirmed that Robert Hagan will be tried, before Judge Heartfield, with jury selection beginning at 9:00 a.m., and the trial set to commence immediately upon the jury being selected and seated.

Attempts to contact Hagan's attorney, Eldred Smith, J.D., of Longview, went unanswered.

A likely prosecution witness is NASA Office of Inspector General Special Agent Sheila Brock. Overseeing the national effort to identify and prosecute the Columbia debris theft cases is Lance Carrington, Assistant Inspector General for Investigations (AIGI), NASA Office of Inspector General.

Making this trial more compelling is the fact that the defendant was once a law enforcement officer. Smith, in attempting to defend his client, will likely to raise the question: is my client standing trial because he committed a crime or because the government wants to make an example of him? The defense can also argue that a person or persons unknown to Hagan told him he could keep small pieces of the shuttle.

Also likely is that the defense will attempt to show the deminimus value of the shuttle fragments, and suggest that if the case were handled at the state level, would almost certainly not result in a jail sentence.

Indictment for theft of shuttle toilet

May 8

The following first appeared in The Daily Sentinel. It is reprinted here with permission.

A federal grand jury on Wednesday indicted a Sabine County man for stealing a toilet from the space shuttle Columbia.

Daniel Christopher Williams, 27, is the fifth person indicted in East Texas for stealing debris from the shuttle, which disintegrated over Texas on Feb. 1. He was indicted on a charge of theft of government property.

The technical name of the piece Williams is accused of withholding from NASA's recovery efforts is "compactor tank assembly."

Duncan Woodford, spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, said he could not comment on how authorities learned of the alleged theft.

If convicted, Williams faces up to 10 years in federal prison and a fine of up to $250,000 on each count.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Malcolm Bales, with the Lufkin office, is prosecuting the case.

Two suspects previously charged with stealing shuttle debris, Merrie Hipp of Henderson and SFA student Bradley Gaudet, are set to stand trial on May 13 in Lufkin before Chief U.S. District Judge John Hannah Jr.

Robert Hagan II, a Harrison County constable, and Jeffrey D. Arriola, a former Angelina County sheriff's deputy, are set to stand trial May 19, in Beaumont.

NASA worker denies taking pieces

April 25, 2003

— Michael Pankiewicz has plead not guilty to charges related to the alleged theft of Columbia debris.

Pankiewicz, a 15-year NASA veteran, was employed at Kennedy Space Center overseeing the work of shuttle contractors, said NASA spokesman Bruce Buckingham in an interview with Florida Today.

Released yesterday on $25,000 bail, Pankiewicz' trial is scheduled for June in federal court.

KSC worker took Columbia parts

April 24, 2003

— A Kennedy Space Center employee sent to assist with Columbia accident recovery operations is appearing in federal court today on charges related to the theft of debris, reports Florida Today.

Michael Pankiewicz, 44 is charged with embezzling U.S. Government property, transporting stolen government property and making a false statement to investigators, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Orlando.

In related news, the The Daily Sentinel reports today that trials for four Texas residents charged with looting will begin next month.

The following is reprinted with permission.

The U.S. attorney's office will try four people who have been indicted for theft of shuttle materials, according to public relations specialist Duncan Woodford.

Trials for Merrie Hipp, 43, of Henderson, and Bradley Justin Gaudet, 22, a student at SFA, are set for May 13. U.S. District Judge John Hannah, who presides over courtrooms in both Lufkin and Tyler, will hear the cases. Hipp and Gaudet were indicted for theft of shuttle materials on Feb. 5, before an amnesty period was extended to those who wished to turn in shuttle debris without prosecution.

The trials of two law enforcement officers accused of taking materials are set for May 19 in U.S. District Judge Thad Heartfield's courtroom in Beaumont. Former Angelina County sheriff's deputy Jeffrey D. Arriola, 35, of Lufkin, was indicted March 5 after being accused of taking a coin-sized piece of debris. Also appearing before the judge will be Harrison County Constable Robert Hagan II, 45, of Hallsville. Hagan was arrested Feb. 10 after items believed to be shuttle material were found in the ashtray and trunk of his vehicle.

"There have been no additional arrests," Woodford said.

He said it is the policy of the U.S. attorney's office to neither confirm or deny whether there are any additional investigations of people accused of taking shuttle material.

New shuttle debris scam

February 13, 2003

The following first appeared in The Daily Sentinel. It is reprinted here with permission.

by Emily Taravella

As the search for pieces of the fallen space shuttle Columbia continues, so does the search for people who are trying to profit from the tragedy.

Sheriff Thomas Kerss said law enforcement officers are continuing to investigate reports of people who have either stolen shuttle material or attempted to steal shuttle material.

And Wednesday, officers learned of a new scam that was being carried out in the southwestern part of Nacogdoches County.

"Two white males in a white, one-ton dually pickup were posing as agents authorized to recover shuttle material," he said. "They were making a diligent effort ... but to our knowledge they have not been successful in obtaining any material."

Kerss said citizens should not turn over any debris to anyone who cannot display proper credentials.

Anyone with information about the two individuals executing this scam should contact the sheriff's office, Kerss said.

Texas constable arrested

February 10, 2003

The following first appeared in The Marshall News Messenger. It is reprinted here with permission.

by N.B. Canson

Harrison County Pct. 3 Constable Robert Hagan was arrested by federal officals Monday, accused of stealing debris from the Columbia shuttle disaster, and of lying to officials about the theft, according to U.S. Attorney Matthew Orwig.

Hagan, 45, of Hallsville, allegedly stole a piece of tile and other debris while assisting with a state task force in the search effort on Saturday, Feb. 1, the day of the disaster, and on Sunday, Feb. 2.

He later denied having the debris rather than surrender it to Harrison County Sheriff Tom McCool, according to court documents.

Hagan, an elected official, is accused of hiding the debris in his patrol vehicle and boasting about it to another law enforcement officer when he returned to Harrison County from Nacogdoches.

When Sheriff McCool was notified Wednesday, he confronted Hagan, who allegedly said he had only "a small piece of debris in the front seat but nothing else," according to court documents.

When McCool searched the patrol vehicle and found five more pieces from the shuttle, Hagan claimed he had been authorized to take the pieces.

These claims were false, officials said. No one, including Hagan, was ever authorized to take any piece of debris from the shuttle disaster.

"Hagan once again made the false representation (to Sheriff McCool) that he had permission to keep the debris, but he could not remember who told him," said Duncan Woodford, spokesman in the United States Attorney's Office.

McCool took possession of the items and alerted the FBI, who sent perhaps as many as eight agents to Harrison County on Thursday to interview witnesses and gather evidence from local officials.

"We worked very closely with federal authorities on this case," said McCool on Monday, obviously dismayed by the actions and the apparent lies of the constable.

"It is extremely important that law enforcement personnel be beyond reproach," said McCool. "This case has been pursued aggressively."

Other Harrison County officials have also expressed disgust with Hagan.

"I'm very disappointed," said Pct. 3 County Commissioner James Greer, the commissioner in Hagan's precinct. "If the allegations are true, it's very upsetting."

Pct. 1 Constable Bill Elliott, a lieutenant in the Marshall Fire Department, said he was offended by the allegation. "There are four constables in our county," he said, "It's awful when the actions of one tarnish the rest of us."

Hagan was elected constable in Hallsville in November, 2000 and has served in the office since January of 2001.

His first year in office was clouded in controversy, as Hagan had failed on three occasions to pass the basic peace officer examination within 270 days of taking office.

He was sued by the former district attorney and his patrol car confiscated.

A constable may be elected to office without being a licensed peace officer, but must pass the test for licensing within 270 days, officials said.

Commander Tommy Rogers at the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission in Longview, who supervised the state task force to which Hagan belonged, sent an e-mail to all members of the task force Thursday, urging them to check their vehicles for any piece of debris, no matter how small, informing them it was a federal offense to take government property.

While an amnesty period expired on Friday, allowing those who had taken debris to voluntarily turn it in without fear of prosecution, Hagan allegedly missed this opportunity and denied having the debris instead of voluntarily turning it in.

Nine looting cases being investigated

February 9, 2003

— "We're down to nine investigative complaints turned over to a U.S. attorney in Lufkin," Nacogdoches County Sheriff Thomas Kerss told reporters at a press conference Saturday.

Kerss said that calls into the debris hotline have also reduced since the amnesty period ended.

As of yesterday, about 80 percent of the debris sites reported in Nacogdoches have been cleared, with the remainder expected to visited this weekend.

"Hundreds of pieces" recovered

February 8, 2003

— "Hundreds of pieces of wreckage have been turned over to investigators across East Texas," said U.S. Attorneys Michael Shelby and Matthew Orwig in a statement released after a two day amnesty period for return of debris expired.

In an interview with Reuters, Nacogdoches County Sheriff Thomas Kerss reported that in his jurisdiction alone, 42 people had returned 117 pieces during the prosecution moratorium. He did not know how many people were suspected of hoarding pieces but had missed the deadline.

"We do have a number of names we have forwarded to the FBI so if things are not turned in we'll be following up on them at a later time," Kerss said.

Officials will soon start searching the Internet and local flea markets to ferret out pieces from the shuttle being offered for sale, according to Reuters.

Amnesty period expires

February 7, 2003, Part II

— The amnesty period for returning Space Shuttle Columbia debris has expired.

The end of the return period however, has not marked an end to the search for "unauthorized use of debris."

According to NASA's Office of the Inspector General, unauthorized use includes handling, touching, collecting, keeping, selling, trading, or otherwise not reporting debris found.

If you encounter any of these activites, you should file a report through NASA's internet hotline:

In other news, the indictments for alleged debris thieves Ms. Hipp and Mr. Gaudet, can now be viewed online courtesy The Smoking Gun.

Residents taking advantage of amnesty

February 7, 2003

The Dallas Morning News reports that debris hoarders have been taking advantage of the prosecution moratorim by surrendering recovered parts from the Space Shuttle Columbia.

As a result of the two-day amnesty period announced Wednesday, about 75 pieces from 17 people had been turned over to the sheriff's office in Nacogdoches County by Thursday night. Furthermore, the U.S. Attorney's office in Lufkin had received about 20 new reports of debris theft.

The voluntary return period extends until 6:00pm ET tonight, afterwards prosecutions will resume.

Details on indictments

February 5, Part II

— Tim Wyatt writing for The Dallas Morning News has additional details about Merrie Hipp and Bradley Justin Gaudet, the two East Texas residents indicted for alleged theft of debris from Columbia.

As we suspected, Ms. Hipp was the woman described by The Daily Sentinel who conducted the drive-by looting on February 2. Her attempt to impersonate a NASA employee might have gone unchecked if a responsible citizen hadn't captured her license plate as she drove away with her (alleged) stolen circuit board.

Her attorney R.F. "Buck" Files tells Wyatt that Ms. Hipp is "deeply concerned" now that she is a defendent in a federal criminal case.

Mr. Gaudet, a student at Stephen F. Austin State University, wore an ROTC uniform to his hearing. An informant lead to Gaudet's arrest.

Two indicted in theft of debris

February 5, 2003

— Federal prosectuors announced today the arrests and indictments of two Texas residents for possesion of debris from the Space Shuttle Columbia.

U. S. Attorney Matthew D. Orwig of the Eastern District of Texas announced today the indictment of Merrie Hipp, 43, of Henderson, Texas for the alleged theft of a "circuit board" and Bradley Justin Gaudet, 23, of Nacogdoches, Texas for the alleged theft of "thermal barrier inner fabric". If convicted, both Hipp and Gaudet face a maximum of ten years in federal prison, without parole, and a $250,000 fine.

Orwig and U.S. Attorney Michael Shelby of the Southern District of Texas also announced that for a two-day period beginning Wednesday, federal charges would not be filed against any person who voluntarily turned in any piece of shuttle debris to any law enforcement agency involved in the recovery process.

The return period began at 2:00pm ET today, and ends at 6:00pm ET on Friday, February 7.

"For this limited period, our offices will not criminally prosecute anyone who voluntarily delivers to investigating authorities any piece or pieces of the shuttle's wreckage, large or small, and provides information concerning when and where it was found," said U. S. Attorney Shelby. "We have taken this extraordinary step as part of the effort to help authorities in their monumental effort to recover each and every clue to the Columbia tragedy."

At least 17 investigations were reported of people taking shuttle debris as souvenirs.

"No one knows which piece will reveal the cause of this accident," Orwig said. "Because every piece is potentially crucial to the investigation, now is the time to act. For the next two and one-half days, if you have a piece of shuttle debris, turn it in, tell us where you found it, and you won't be charged."

Any person in possession of or finds debris from the shuttle Columbia should immediately telephone the Columbia Shuttle Command Center Debris Reporting Line at 936-699-1032. Reports may also be directed to the NASA Johnson Space Center Emergency Operations Center at 281-483-3388.

Individuals are strongly urged not to handle the debris, but to allow the appropriate law enforcement personnel to secure the items.

Officials crack down on debris looters

by Todd Bensman

The following article first appeared in The Dallas Morning News. It is reprinted here with permission.

February 4, 2003

— Law enforcement officials are investigating East Texas residents who have taken space shuttle Columbia debris from field sites to their homes.

Nacogdoches County Sheriff Thomas Kerss said Monday that federal agents plan to visit a residence to pick up debris and are investigating others.

"Rather than us use the terms 'stolen' or 'theft,' it's more of a looting-type situation, where I'm not so sure the intent was there to steal something as much as it was, 'Oh, here's a chance for me to take home a souvenir or memento from this tragic event,'" he said.

Matt Orwig, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Texas, said that it would be "heartless" for anyone to profit from the tragedy and that his office will deal aggressively with any thefts of shuttle fragments. Authorities had not made any arrests by Monday.

"A lot of people in law enforcement are licking their chops," Mr. Orwig said. "Everybody out there wants to make that point, and everybody out there wants to be the first to make it."

Anyone who pockets debris could be charged with theft of government property or obstructing an investigation involving commercial transportation. Each crime carries maximum penalties of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

The Eastern District of Texas, where most of the debris has been found, will seek the harshest penalty possible for anyone caught stealing debris, Mr. Orwig said.

"They will be dealt with harshly, not only by history but also by this office," he said.

Finding debris thieves and profiteers - such as the person who posted a listing for shuttle debris on eBay on Saturday - is a "lower priority," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Malcolm Bales.

Most law enforcement officers are dedicated to identifying and recovering parts, he said.

Spacecraft debris has peppered wide swaths of private land in East Texas. Not all of it has been found and officially marked. Much of the material is largely unguarded. Some of it lies beside roads, and other pieces lie in the yards of people who are not at home.

San Augustine-area resident Robert McMillan, 19, lives next to a large field that authorities have not inspected. Debris has been marked with sticks in the ground.

"I would imagine everyone who has seen some has kept a piece or two," he said. "Except me. I'm not interested in none of that."

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