To his Chevy Chase neighbors, Stewart Nozette was an enigma. To his colleagues, he was a well-respected scientist. To the federal government--he was a disaster waiting to happen.
Obscured by cypress trees and overgrown bushes, the plain brick colonial was something of a mystery in its Chevy Chase Village neighborhood. Its owners had lived there for more than a decade, but the couple was reclusive. He could be seen picking up the morning newspaper. She’d emerge all in black and climb into the backseat of a town car that would whisk her away.
“Every shade in the house was pulled,” says Carol Lynn Winter, who lives next door to the Grafton Street house. “Nothing was open. You sort of got the message right away they didn’t want to be bothered with anybody.”
The mystery deepened when a heavily armed team of federal agents from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives descended on the property early on Feb. 16, 2007, departing hours later with “tons of stuff, many cartons,” as Winter remembers.
“I was terrified,” she says. “I went up to [an agent] and said, ‘Should I be worried?’ He said no.” The feds were looking into tax fraud—$265,000 they claimed the occupants had overbilled the government on contracts in order to support their expensive lifestyle.
More than two years passed. The owners of the mysterious house went about their business. Then, around 7 a.m. on Oct. 19, 2009, the feds were back.
“Look out the window,” Winter’s neighbor, Betty O’Connor, told her over the phone. Agents were removing “computers and cartons and cartons” again. As Winter and others soon learned, this was no simple fishing expedition: This involved a case of what was alleged to be attempted espionage.
By mid-afternoon, network reporters were swarming on Grafton Street and encamped in Winter’s living room, interviewing her about her neighbor.
Shortly before 11 p.m., TV lights were set up for the late-night news. The Winters were in their second-floor front bedroom when floodlights turned night into day.
Grafton, a sedate and settled tree-lined street of mostly older, understated homes, had never seen anything quite like it.
The man accused of attempting to betray his country for cash had been arrested that same day in a room at the Mayflower Hotel on Connecticut Avenue. Stewart David Nozette, now 54, had a Ph.D. from MIT and was largely credited with finding evidence of water on the moon’s south pole.
He palled around with celebrity astronomers, including the late Carl Sagan. He gave to political campaigns—mostly Republican—but voiced no strong political views, domestic or foreign. He drove a Mercedes and a Smart car. Former associates described him as brainy and nerdy.
He was a man of means with multiple properties to his name who apparently fell hook, line and sinker for an FBI sting: An undercover agent posing as a representative of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, had offered cash in exchange for secrets. Not even big cash, mind you, but $21,000, paid in three installments, with the promise of more to come. Nozette would be secretly recorded demanding $2 million in all.
He would be caught on video and on a wire saying what sounded like lines from a bad spy movie. He had “crossed the Rubicon” and “made a career choice,” he said at one point. It was more like Get Stupid than Get Smart.
Nozette had run a nonprofit ostensibly dedicated to furthering the country’s knowledge of space technology. But after the 2007 raid, the government eventually would charge that the organization was also a cash cow for Nozette and his wife, Labor Department lawyer Wendy McColough.
In that case, Nozette would face federal charges of tax evasion and fraud amounting to $265,000, and both would face a federal lien, including penalties and interest, of $583,465.
The government said his nonprofit had overbilled NASA, the United States Naval Research Laboratory and the Department of Defense.