- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 5, 2003

LUFKIN, Texas, Feb. 5 (UPI) — Federal prosecutors said Wednesday that a man and woman have been charged with stealing debris from the wreckage of space shuttle Columbia in east Texas.

Merrie Hipp, 43, of Henderson, and Bradley Justin Gaudet, 23, of Nacogdoches, were charged with the theft of government property. They could face up to 10 years in prison and a $250,00 fine if convicted.

Amid scattered reports of other thefts, the prosecutors offered a two-day amnesty program with the goal of collecting as much debris as possible.

Those who have taken wreckage have until 5 p.m. Friday to turn it in to authorities or face federal prosecution, U.S. Attorney Matthew Orwig of Beaumont and Michael Shelby of Houston said.

"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," said Shelby.

Hipp and Gaudet were arrested early Wednesday and taken before a federal magistrate later in the day to hear a reading of the charges. Their arraignment had not yet been scheduled.

According to court documents, Hipps is charged with stealing a circuit board from the shuttle on Saturday. In another indictment, Gaudet is charged with stealing a thermal barrier inner fabric from the wreckage on the same day.

Any person with debris was urged to call the Columbia Shuttle Command Center Debris Reporting Line at (936) 699-1032.

Meanwhile, rain was expected to hinder the debris recovery effort about 180 miles southeast of Dallas around Hemphill and Nacogdoches in east Texas and western Louisiana.

"This will no doubt complicate the search and make miserable conditions for the searchers," said Marq Webb, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman.

Recovery teams in Sabine County have recovered "significant" pieces of the shuttle, including a portion of the aircraft superstructure, a piece of the landing gear, and "a part of the control panel," he said.

A portion of the nose cone was prepared for transport Tuesday and might be moved out Wednesday to Barksdale Air Force Base near Shreveport, La., the main collection site for debris and human remains found at the site.

Local officials have released few details about the remains of the astronauts, leaving that to NASA and others. NASA has identified the remains of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, according to a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces.

Webb said divers will be searching nearby Toledo Bend Reservoir, a meandering, 15-mile-wide lake that straddles the Texas-Louisiana border. "They have targets that have been identified," he said.

Additional crews are coming in from Oklahoma and Arkansas to aid in the search for debris in the Sabine and Nacogdoches county area of southeast Texas, the largest concentration of the debris from Columbia that has been found so far.

More than 12,000 pieces of the shuttle have been collected in Texas, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Shuttle debris has been found in 38 Texas counties and 19 Louisiana parishes.

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(Reported by Phil Magers in Dallas).

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