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Tragicomic case of nuclear scientist, wife has yet to play out

Remember P. Leonardo Mascheroni?

He’s the former Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist who made international headlines when he was indicted in 2010 on charges of trying to pass nuclear secrets to Venezuela, or at least to someone he thought was a Venezuelan agent.

Mascheroni’s case, including an FBI raid on his Los Alamos home, even got the attention of now-deceased Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. Chavez said it was all part of a plan to portray his leftist administration as “a nuclear government.”

P. Leonardo Mascheroni wants to withdraw his guilty plea to charges in an alleged scheme to help Venezuela develop a nuclear bomb and other weapons. (Heather Clark/The Associated Press)

P. Leonardo Mascheroni wants to withdraw his guilty plea to charges in an alleged scheme to help Venezuela develop a nuclear bomb and other weapons. (Heather Clark/The Associated Press)

In June 2013, Mascheroni pleaded guilty to six counts, including communication of “restricted data” and retention of national defense information. His wife, Marjorie Roxby Mascheroni, pleaded guilty to lesser offenses for helping her husband.

Both face prison terms. But more than a year after they entered into what seemed like simple and straightforward plea deals with federal prosecutors, which were accepted by the judge, neither has been sentenced.

The latest court documents now show no clear ending to this saga for Mascheroni, whose 79th birthday is this month. He’s been sitting behind bars since November, when a judge had him incarcerated pending sentencing because, the judge wrote, it appeared Mascheroni was still getting his hands on secret federal government science or defense material.

Also, Mascheroni has split with court-appointed defense lawyers and now wants to take back his guilty plea. Federal District Judge William P. Johnson says that’s not going to happen on his watch. Mascheroni faces from 2 to 5½ years in prison (he’s coming up on eight months behind bars since Johnson put him in the slammer late last year).

Marjorie Roxby Mascheroni claims she was led astray by her “cruel and abusive” spouse, according to her lawyer. (Susan Montoya Bryan/The Associated Press)

Marjorie Roxby Mascheroni claims she was led astray by her “cruel and abusive” spouse, according to her lawyer. (Susan Montoya Bryan/The Associated Press)

For Mascheroni’s wife, sentencing hearings have been postponed a couple of times and now there’s one set for August. Her lawyer’s pre-sentencing memo to the judge portrays her as led astray by a “cruel and abusive husband” with an “arrogant intellect” and “unstable temper.” She was working at LANL before her arrest.

Many of Roxby Mascheroni’s friends and relatives, from Los Alamos and elsewhere, have written to Johnson, and portray her as a generous, loving mother and grandmother ready to accept the consequences for errors she made out of loyalty to her husband. She will be sentenced to at least one year and no more than two years in prison under her plea agreement.

None of her supporters has much good to say about Leonardo Mascheroni, who’s described as unstable and controlling. One letter-writer says Roxby Mascheroni was left alone to raise children and keep house while he “pursued his obsession with obtaining funding for his fusion energy research” rather than finding a job.

Another writes that her husband “had her convinced he was a brilliant, under-appreciated scientist who needed his research to be recognized – there are many of these types of husbands in Los Alamos.”

Bizarre details

The pleas for mercy for Roxby Mascheroni, 71, add tragedy to a story that otherwise is, frankly, almost comical. The details sound like a John le Carré novel as adapted in an absurdly over-the-top screenplay by the Coen brothers.

Authorities have said Mascheroni wanted to help Venezuela build missiles, a nuclear bomb, and a secret underground facility for a nuclear reactor and production of “mini-bombs.”

According to indictments, he also suggested other grandiose schemes, including an explosion over New York that could produce an “electromagnetic pulse” to knock out the metropolis’ electrical power; a laser that could blind satellites; and making Venezuela into Latin America’s defense “umbrella,” able to retaliate against attacks with nuclear bombs.

Mascheroni, under his code name “Luke,” is accused of providing the plans and classified information to an FBI officer masquerading as a Venezuelan agent. Despite Chavez’s claims of a plot to discredit his country, the FBI said there is no evidence the Venezuelan government ever had anything to do with Mascheroni’s plotting.

Mascheroni was out of jail under court-imposed restrictions pending sentencing until he submitted a 35-page letter to Johnson last fall in an effort to dump his court-appointed attorneys (the letter has been sealed from public view).

Johnson, in a court filing, wrote that the Department of Energy has determined that the letter contains classified information. The judge said he has concerns that the letter was produced on a non-secure computer and about whether Mascheroni “had access to classified information during the process of writing the letter.”

Post-plea wrangling

More recently, Johnson rejected a motion to release Mascheroni again pending sentencing. The judge wrote that he didn’t even have to hear from prosecutors before denying the request, which came from Mascheroni’s daughter, a lawyer who lives in California.

Johnson said she had no standing to file a motion in this case and that, because she helped her father with the letter that resulted in his November order to jail Mascheroni, she has become a potential witness in the case.

Also in May, Johnson did allow two lawyers appointed for Mascheroni to withdraw. The judge said Mascheroni himself was responsible for “the communication breakdown” with the legal team, leaving veteran Albuquerque attorney Richard Winterbottom to represent the scientist.

According to minutes of a May 14 hearing, Winterbottom told the judge Mascheroni intends to take back his guilty plea. Mascheroni is claiming that his prior lawyers “made misrepresentations that led him to plead guilty,” one of Johnson’s court filings state.

But the judge says the plea deal from last year has terms that don’t allow it to be withdrawn, so he won’t even “entertain” any motion for taking back the plea. Mascheroni can raise his complaints about his lawyers and the plea on appeal, Johnson said.

A trial for Mascheroni would almost certainly be entertainingly interesting if the FBI’s story, as revealed in the 2010 indictments, is accurate. But Johnson is clearly in no mood to give him one now.