Longform

5...4...3...2...1...HEADS UPLET'S DO LAUNCH NO, YOU DON'T HAVE TO BE A ROCKET SCIENTIST. JUST FLEX YOUR MISSILES.

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The most alarming incident, however, occurred nearly five years ago--before many of today's more powerful motors were even available. That's when Cheryl Tindell of Houston received a phone call from the FBI. She recalls the conversation was short and cryptic; the San Francisco-based agent on the other end of the line said only that the FBI "would like to talk to my husband, Edward, and that President Bush was aware of what was going on."

The reason for the call turned out to be that, at the time, Ed was president of Tripoli. The FBI was looking for information on a new member named Christina Reid, a San Francisco State electrical-engineering student with a history of supporting radical causes. One of them was the Irish Republican Army.

Reid, it would turn out, had joined Tripoli to become certified by the organization. Certification, which requires one successful launch and recovery at a Tripoli-sanctioned event, permits association members to then purchase high-power rocket motors as part of a research organization.

In July 1989 FBI agents arrested Reid, along with three men, and charged them with conspiring to build and sell surface-to-air missiles to the IRA to be used to down British helicopters. (Hearing that some of the model-rocket motors could propel a missile at up to 1,000 miles per hour, one of the would-be terrorists gloated that British pilots "won't have time to blink.") A handmade but functional shoulder launcher was confiscated from the group.

Ed Tindell, who turned over association records on Reid to the FBI, testified at the trial that the powerful rocket motors used by Tripoli members indeed could easily be turned into terrorist weapons. For his efforts, he won a commendation from the FBI. For her efforts, Reid was sentenced to 41 months in prison.

Predictably, the several federal agencies (California is the only state with specific laws restricting the possession of high-power rocket motors) long content to ignore the hobby--or simply unaware of it--recently have become interested in Tripoli and its members' toys.

In rules put into place last year, the Department of Transportation now requires special licenses for motor manufacturers to ship their wares to Tripoli members across the country. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is in the process of assessing whether some of the rocket motors should be considered Class B explosives, in which case association members themselves would need licenses to possess them.

end of part 1

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer