P. Leonardo Mascheroni had a simple dream: earning billions of dollars in government funding to build a gigantic laser beam that would create stable nuclear fusion and limitless, free energy for the world. So simple! But the government wouldn't listen.
So the Los Alamos-based nuclear physicist took his plans to a Venezuelan spy and offered a deal: He'd build Hugo Chavez a nuclear bomb if the Bolivarian Republic would fund his research. Unfortunately for him, the "spy" was an FBI plant, and all of Miami can heave a giant sigh that Chavez is not getting a nuke.
Mascheroni, an Argentinian who went by "Leo" and "Luke," earned a Ph.D. at the University of California Berkeley before joining Los Alamos in 1979. He spent nine years there on nuclear research before coming up with the project that would become his obsession.
Scientists for decades have dreamed of harnessing nuclear fusion, the process that powers the sun, and Mascheroni believed he had the key: A huge laser beam that would ignite tiny atoms. The plan wasn't crazy -- a Los Alamos committee backed him, as did a former CIA director, the New York Times writes this morning.
But the government eventually decided to go with a different group's laser plan, funding a $3.5 billion site in California. That's when Leo got desperate.
The Argentinian scientist started bombarding politicians and journalists with hundreds of pages of technical details and impassioned pleas, the Times writes.
Then in March, 2008, an FBI agent posing as a Venezuelan spy named Luis Jimenez contacted Mascheroni. The scientist said he was a fan of Chavez and asked Jimenez to set up "secret" meetings with top Venezuelan defense authorities in Caracas.
The pair began meeting regularly, and that's when the scientist really opened up, according to the indictment. Mascheroni pledged that he could build Chavez a nuclear bomb within 10 years and could deliver 40 warheads by 2020. He suggested that after testing a bomb, Venezuela should detonate one high above New York to knock out all the city's electricity.
Jimenez, meanwhile, promised to fund the scientist's work, bring him and his wife to Venezuela, and provide hefty salaries. He delivered $20,000 in a first payment.
Last October, the feds sprung their trap, raiding Mascheroni's home and seizing his computers. An indictment made public last week charges both Mascheroni and his wife, Marjorie, with several counts of conspiracy to sell state secrets and to produce atomic weapons.
So how serious was the threat? Mascheroni sounds like he would have done just about anything to fund his research, but one colleague tells the Times that he doubts the scientist had the chops to actually deliver a nuke to Venezuela.
"He was never particularly interested in nuclear weapons," Dr. Hugh DeWitt, tells the Times. "His interest was in laser fusion."
Tim Elfrink is an award-winning investigative reporter, the managing editor of the Miami New Times and the co-author of "Blood Sport: Alex Rodriguez and the Quest to End Baseball's Steroid Era." Since 2008, he's written in-depth pieces on police corruption, fatal shootings and social justice issues across South Florida. He's won the George Polk Award and has been a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.