Wichita The former head of the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center who is facing charges of stealing and selling space artifacts is a dreamer who turned the center into a nationally recognized museum, not the schemer portrayed by the prosecution, a defense attorney said Wednesday.
In his opening statement Wednesday morning, defense attorney Lee Thompson told jurors that Max Ary did not intend to cheat, steal or defraud anyone. He was an idea man, not a detail man, Thompson said, adding Ary may have made some mistakes and errors in judgment.
Opening arguments provided the first glimpse into the defense of Ary against 19 federal counts ranging from mail fraud to money laundering. He is accused of making profits on a number of artifacts, including ones on loan from NASA.
Thompson told jurors that what Ary accomplished in his 26 years at the Cosmosphere cannot be ignored. He turned it from a small-town museum with a budget of $40,000 into a space center with a budget of $3.7 million, building a treasure in Hutchinson that now includes exhibits such as the Apollo 13.
"This case is about whether Max Ary was loyal to that dream, but if after a quarter of a century he turned traitor to that dream," Thompson said.
In his opening statement, U.S. Atty. Eric Melgren said the source of the artifacts will be very important to the case. He told jurors the case against Ary is not complicated.
"This case may involve space, but it's not rocket science," Melgren said.
Melgren told jurors they will see some things that went to the moon. Thompson noted that astronauts would testify on Ary's behalf.
Ary, 55, left the Hutchinson museum in May 2002. He later took a job at the Kirkpatrick Science and Air Space Museum at Omniplex in Oklahoma City, where he was replaced Monday as executive director.
Cosmosphere president Jeff Ollenburger - whom Ary groomed as his successor - broke down and cried on the witness stand as he recounted his disbelief upon discovering that Ary had sold museum artifacts and pocketed the money.
Among them was data recording tape from the Apollo 15 mission that was sold at auction for $2,500 - money the Cosmosphere eventually traced to an account Ary had with a California auction house.
"This was a really hard time, because of my relationship with Mr. Ary," Ollenburger testified. "There was nobody I respected more. He was a tutor and a friend. I just couldn't believe it."
After discovering the Cosmosphere never authorized the sale of the NASA-loaned tape and never received money for it, Ollenburger said he asked his staff to start looking at other lots Ary had auctioned. He expected to find maybe one museum item among the things that were auctioned; instead they found dozens.
"I sensed the enormity of what we were dealing with," Ollenburger said. "It was very difficult."