Read: Why are art heists so fascinating?
McWhorter joined Thad and Fowler, and the three met Emmermann’s “sister-in-law,” the undercover FBI agent, at an Italian restaurant. Thad proudly told her the whole story. Thad, Fowler, McWhorter, and Saur were all arrested and eventually sentenced. (Thad, Fowler, and Saur pleaded guilty; McWhorter denied the charges but was convicted at trial.) Kaydee sent Thad divorce papers.
Meanwhile, in a cubicle at Cosmic Ray Research, I stared, horrified, at Thad’s mug shot in the newspaper after his arrest. It wasn’t even his first theft, I learned: An FBI search of Thad’s home had revealed fossils stolen from the basement of the University of Utah’s Natural History Museum. The mentor who believed in me turned out to be a con man.
While I’ll never get on another plane with Thad, he has served his years in prison, and he is trying to move on. Instead of fleeing from science, he now puts forth theories on quantum gravity as a “philosopher of physics,” according to his website. As a public speaker, he urges people to commit to their dreams and rebound from their mistakes.
Over the past year, I’ve reestablished contact with Thad to better understand why he gave up the very dream he’d encouraged me to seek. He immediately responded to my email, agreeing to an interview on Skype. He was as charming as I remembered him, although he appeared more careworn and subdued. I finally asked him the question that had plagued me for almost 20 years: Why steal the moon rocks in the first place? Was it for money? I didn’t believe it was for love, since he’d been planning the theft well before he met Fowler.
“To feel good enough,” he said. This surprised me—he had always seemed sure of himself. Kaydee, too, says she saw him as a confident person. But Thad claimed he’d felt insecure from the beginning, terrified from day one of his internship with NASA. He was afraid of being abandoned by Fowler, his new lover; worried about losing his wife; and unsure he’d be able to provide for both of them. It didn’t help that at 19, at least according to Thad, he’d been sent home in disgrace from his Mormon mission for confessing to premarital sex—and, subsequently, thrown out of his home in Syracuse, Utah, by his family.
Kaydee was the one, Thad insisted, who believed he could make it to NASA, a fact she also confirmed to me. She was even willing to get another part-time job to support him. Although he was newly involved with Fowler, Thad said he wanted to support her dreams in return. Stealing the moon rocks would solve the problem. Anytime he started doubting his plans, he’d tell himself he’d already decided to do it and dismiss the fear.
The more I reviewed Thad’s history, the less the label con man—or its back-formation, confidence man—seemed to fit him. Con artists use a show of confidence to trick their “marks” out of money or other valuables. They’re people who overpromise and under-deliver on purpose. Thad, in contrast, was a simple thief. Led by his own irrational justifications and the conviction that he could evade capture, he was willing to persuade accomplices to join him, abuse the trust his employers placed in him, and deliver stolen goods to a buyer as promised.