April 7, 2005

Co-Founder of Kan. Space Museum Charged

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) -- The co-founder of a museum housing a nationally recognized collection of space memorabilia stole dozens of artifacts, sold them and pocketed the profits, prosecutors alleged Thursday.

Max Ary was instrumental in transforming a small-town planetarium into the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center, which he led for 27 years. A federal indictment filed in Wichita, Kan., claims he stole a number of the Hutchinson, Kan., museum's prized possessions and many items on loan from NASA.

The indictment charged Ary made around $180,000 by selling objects including the nose of a rocket, an astronaut's in-flight T-shirt, a control panel from Air Force One and an Apollo 12 water valve.

Cosmosphere president Jeff Ollenburger, who succeeded Ary in 2002, said only a third of the more than 100 missing items are noted in the indictment. Ollenburger said no value has been placed on the missing items.

Ary is charged with counts including wire fraud, mail fraud and theft of government property.

Ary's attorney Lee Thompson said his client "intends to defend his innocence against any charge that he harmed the Cosmosphere or the federal space program."

Under Ary's leadership, the Cosmosphere, about 200 miles southwest of Kansas City, grew from a two-person operation to a space museum with about 70 employees and 285,000 annual visitors.

Ary now lives in Oklahoma City, where he runs the Kirkpatrick Science and Air Space Museum. A spokeswoman said Ary will take a leave of absence.