Fla. Space Center Worker Charged in Theft

AP Wire Service

ORLANDO, Fla. – A Kennedy Space Center employee who helped search for debris after the Columbia disaster was arrested for allegedly stealing part of the shuttle.

Michael Pankiewicz, 44, was arrested late Wednesday and charged with embezzling government property, transporting stolen government property and making a false statement to federal investigators, said Carolyn Adams, spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Orlando. She wouldn’t say what shuttle part or parts he was accused of taking.

A message left Thursday for space center spokesman Bruce Buckingham was not immediately returned.

An initial court appearance and bond hearing for Pankiewicz was expected later Thursday. It wasn’t immediately clear if he had an attorney who comment.

The Columbia broke up Feb. 1 as it entered the atmosphere 39 miles over Texas, killing all seven astronauts.

More than 70,000 shuttle parts have since been found across more than 2,400 square miles of Texas and Louisiana. Looting was so widespread initially that authorities declared a three-day amnesty period for scavengers to turn in what they found. Hundreds of pieces of debris were brought in then. Still, at least five people have been charged with illegally keeping shuttle parts.