The Cloud Over Lightning Strike

Did the U.S. government spend $2 million just to nail little guys like David Proctor?

Things were going well for David Proctor in the summer of 1993. The 34-year-old West Texas native -- a pudgy, bespectacled man who was a self-described "band queer" at Abilene Cooper High -- was raising a family at his new home in League City just south of the Johnson Space Center complex, where he had worked for five years as an engineer in NASA's Life Sciences Division on what he calls "the cutting edge of technology." When he set out for work on the morning of August 2, 1993, Proctor had no idea that by the end of the day he would be ensnared in the FBI's "Operation Lightning Strike," an event that would shatter his life and leave him with a drastically altered view of his country.

The $2 million undercover sting was put in play to root out purported widespread corruption in the aerospace industry and among high-ranking NASA administrators, but to date it has netted only a handful of small fish like Proctor. Now, as he awaits trial on charges that he accepted bribes and disclosed proprietary government information, Proctor has begun to tell his side of the story, claiming he was set up to commit innocent mistakes --not crimes --and then had his constitutional rights trampled as the FBI pressured him into implicating higher-ups at NASA. And he says he did just that --a point on which even the man Proctor portrays as his chief persecutor agrees -- but that the U.S. Department of Justice has ignored the evidence he gathered and has no intention of pursuing charges against high-ranking NASA officials.

Others whose lives were touched by Operation Lightning Strike also have recently broken their silence on the sting, joining Proctor in accusing the government of having crossed the line that separates an investigation from entrapment and raising questions about the scope and intent of the operation. Even before their complaints were voiced, the Department of Justice had opened an investigation into allegations of misconduct by investigators in Operation Lightning Strike, while the FBI agent who engineered the sting had accused the U.S. Attorney's office in Houston of dragging its feet in prosecuting cases he had assembled.

But all of that was in an unimaginable future for David Proctor on that Monday morning last year when, as on most workdays, he awoke before the sun and arrived at the JSC complex at about 6 a.m. Proctor often dressed casually, but on that day he wore a business suit and a tie for an appointment with officials from aerospace contractor Martin Marietta at their Clear Lake offices. Around 2:30 that afternoon -- while meeting with the Martin Marietta management team that was working with NASA on a joint U.S./Russian space project -- Proctor received a page on his digital beeper. The message was from a friend, 53-year-old research scientist Jim Verlander, who worked for Krug Life Sciences. Proctor had been employed at Krug for three years before signing on with the space agency, and for more than a year he and Verlander had been doing some moonlighting work together. When Proctor returned the page, Verlander told the younger man that they needed to talk. Proctor arranged to rendezvous with Verlander 30 minutes later at the Grandy's on the corner of El Camino Real and Bay Area Boulevard, not far from Martin Marietta.

A year later, Proctor recalls thinking how the normally busy fast food restaurant seemed eerily empty that afternoon, with only a few customers occupying tables around the edges of the interior. Verlander wasn't there yet, so Proctor went to the counter and ordered a Coke and some peach cobbler. He took his snack to a table and began going over some work he had brought with him. Suddenly, he was approached by two men, and as he rose to meet them, one flashed a badge and identified himself as Hal Francis, an agent from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The other identified himself as an agent of the NASA Inspector General's office. One of the men informed Proctor that they had been watching him for "some time" and their presence was related to his off-hour dealings with Jim Verlander. They advised him to sit back down. He did.

"At that time they say, 'David, you're in serious trouble,'" Proctor recounts. "'But you have a choice. You can either leave, be arrested and go to prison. Or, you can come with us and help yourself in this matter.'

"And I said, 'Well, I guess I'll go with you.' And they said, 'Okay.' So we got up from the table, and they offered to let me finish my Coke and peach cobbler. I thanked them, but said that I didn't think that was a good idea."

Proctor's two new keepers escorted him to a car, where a third man was waiting behind the wheel. Leaving Proctor's car at the restaurant, the foursome headed north on the Gulf Freeway toward Houston. Proctor says no one said a word, although inside his head he was carrying on a frantic conversation with himself.

"I just kept telling myself, 'Don't panic,'" he remembers.
Proctor was driven to a facility near the Astrodome that he would later come to know as "the warehouse," where he was instructed to take a seat at a small table in an 8-by-10 room. The agents shut the door, leaving him alone in the room, which also contained a large whiteboard. On it was written Proctor's name in felt marker. Beside his name were the words "Crimes Committed."

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