Gonzo journalist Ben Mezrich typically chronicles high-rolling Ivy League genius geeks for a living.
But in Thad Roberts, Mezrich met the brightest, highest-rolling geek of them all: a love-struck NASA intern who pulled off one of the most audacious heists in history when he tiptoed out of the Johnson Space Center one rainy Texas midnight in 2003 with a 600-pound safe containing $20 million in moon rocks.
"Sex on the Moon," Mezrich's cautionary-but-damn-that's-cool account of Roberts' outrageous moon shot reads like "Oceans 11" on Red Bull. It's soon to be a film as well, from the producers of "The Social Network."
Was Roberts more motivated by love or money? Neither Mezrich nor Roberts can say for sure.
Roberts served six years in prison for a crime NASA effectively covered up. He's currently completing his doctorate at the University of Utah.
CreditCards.com hooked up with Mezrich on his book tour to discuss geek dreams, moon rocks and the financial damage that can follow when a journalist gets swept up in his story.
CreditCards.com: Straighten us out here: A guy tries to sell $20 million in moon rocks, but he wasn't in it for the money?
Mezrich: That's a great question. I feel like he did it out of love. He was already planning the crime before he even met the girl, but I don't think he would have actually done it because it was this fantasy; this is really cool, I think I could pull this off. Then he meets this girl and he falls madly in love with her. He tells her he's thinking about doing this, and he expects her to say don't do that, that's crazy. But instead, she's like, 'That would be romantic!' So immediately he decides to do it. He's had impulse control issues.
CreditCards.com: Still, he was only trying to get $100,000 for them. How money motivated could he have been?
Mezrich: Exactly. They're worth way, way more than that.
CreditCards.com: Thad differs considerably from your other subjects. His devout Mormon family disowned him and threw him out for having premarital sex. He married in his teens. And he was trying to launch a space career on the thinnest of shoestrings.
Mezrich: Yes, the others were all from good, middle-class families; Thad was broke, he was in debt. You can't say there was no profit motive involved; there definitely was. As a NASA co-op (intern), you get paid but it's a little more than a glorified internship, and you still have to continue with school. So he had a lot of debt.
CreditCards.com: What do they all have in common?
Mezrich: They all want to be larger than life. They have the need to show the world what they can do and be better than everyone else. And I think they all have kind of a hole inside that they're trying to fill because they were geeky guys -- or in Thad's case, because of his horrible background. So they take risks and do things that other people wouldn't do to get there.
For a year, my whole goal was to try to figure out who Thad really is. My mom, who was one of my first readers, said, 'What he really needs is a hug from his mother.' Which he didn't get.
CreditCards.com: You've had your own wild ride with debt, but it didn't start at home.
Mezrich: No. We weren't wealthy but we weren't poor; we were middle class. My dad was an engineer when I grew up and my mom was a housewife. Then, in their forties, my dad became a doctor and my mom became a lawyer.
CreditCards.com: Then, as the saying goes, you fell in with a fast crowd -- in this case, the "Bringing Down the House" guys, right?
Mezrich: (Laughs) I was a mess for awhile! Hanging out with MIT kids just ruins your perception of money. They walk around with $10,000 in hundreds in their pocket and they count money in inches. They'll say, 'Here's three inches;' that means $30,000. I would think nothing of filling a duffle bag with half a million dollars and going to Vegas. That kind of screws you up.
I had sold all these fiction books, so I had been paid a lot of money, and I spent it all. It was a crazy time in my life. That's when I got to know what these people are like because I was hanging out with them. It was a crazy lifestyle.
CreditCards.com: How crazy is crazy?
Mezrich: Before 'Bringing Down the House' came out, I was about $1.5 million in debt and was carrying $80,000 on credit cards. I owed the IRS $300,000 at the time, and I had no money. I was paying my rent with credit card checks. I was even combing through business school applications because I thought 'OK, I'm going to have to get another degree and get a different job because writing isn't going to pay the bills.' And then 'Bringing Down the House' came out and just exploded. So I got lucky. I do know what it's like to lose all your money.
You never think you're going to have that kind of money, and then when you do, you think it's going to keep coming. And it never does.
CreditCards.com: Presumably, you've learned your lesson?
Mezrich: (Laughs) When an IRS agent knows you by name, that's when you know things are bad! So I got a business manager; I went a totally different route. Now I'm a much more boring person; I'm in a happy family situation. I have a wife and a kid and take care of my finances like a normal person. I'm much more in control of myself.
CreditCards.com: The double-edge sword of a youthful windfall.
Mezrich: I know what it's like. When you're 22 years old and someone hands you a check for $2 million, you don't do the smart thing with it, you just don't. And it takes a lot of maturity that a lot of these guys don't have yet. Thad was young when he was kicked out of the house. He was a kid of 18, no family, no money, a wife, and kicked out of his church, which was the only thing he had known. You can kind of understand where things went wrong. He just didn't have the money to get into debt the way I did.
CreditCards.com: If you'd been in Thad's shoes, might you have looked twice at those moon rocks?
Mezrich: You would think about it. Anyone who walked into that lunar lab and walked out, it would be in the back of your mind for a moment; Thad just took it to that next level. But when you actually think it through, you realize, well, I can't sell these things; they're invaluable but impossible to sell. He never went that extra step because it wasn't really about the money; it was more about impressing the girl, about doing something no one else could do, and then maybe the money. But he never really thought that all the way through.
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