Original article no longer available
Nov. 24, 2002, 12:25AM
By TONY FREEMANTLE
Aerospace engineer who leapt from plane thought theft allegation would ruin career
It took about 25 long minutes for the small airplane was co-piloting to claw its way to an altitude of 9,000 feet. His fatal plunge to Earth lasted no more than 40 seconds. At least in that respect, Filler’s death last weekend mirrored his life.
It had taken him a quarter-century to meticulously build a respected career as an aerospace engineer. And it took but a few months for it to unravel amid fear of being laid off from the job he loved and prosecuted for stealing a computer.
Filler’s death last Sunday at first took on the character of a mystery. A 47-year-old engineer for a NASA contractor, under federal investigation for supposedly stealing a laptop from the space agency, charters a Cessna 152 airplane at Hooks Airport in Spring, takes it to 9,000 feet and while the pilot executes a steep bank to the right, jumps or falls from the plane, plunging to his death.
As the week progressed, a sadder picture began to emerge of an emotionally troubled man who was on medication for depression, who had threatened to take his life on several occasions, and who had done so after becoming entangled in an isolated, inexplicable theft that threatened to destroy the reputation he had worked so hard to build.
The federal investigation turned out to be a simple case of theft, which the Harris County Sheriff’s Department quickly closed, convinced that no sensitive information was involved and that Filler and no one else was responsible for removing the laptop from a conference room on the NASA campus. Police investigating his death were convinced no foul play was involved, that Filler had unbuckled his seat belt, opened the door and jumped into the ether.
Filler’s life was aerospace, said Dave Lamar, a close friend who works for NASA in Cleveland.
He learned to fly at an early age. He attended Purdue University in part because many astronauts had done so. He moved to the Houston area soon after graduating to be close to the center of the aerospace industry and apply for admission to the astronaut corps. He worked on the space shuttle and international space station programs. He assumed a leadership role in the local chapter of his industry’s association.
He was stable and financially secure. He owned a home in a comfortable Clear Lake City neighborhood, where he lived for more than 20 years. He drove a canary-yellow, late-model Pontiac Trans Am.
But things began to come apart in September, friends and family said last week, after he told them he was about to be laid off from his job as a senior engineer with United Space Alliance, a NASA contractor.
That and other troubles led to months of ups and downs, said Lamar. Then, on Nov. 14, Filler was interviewed by Sheriff’s Department investigators and members of NASA’s Inspector General’s Office and told he was going to be arrested the following Monday and charged with the theft of the computer.
Investigators did not believe Filler’s account that he bought the computer for $500 from someone in a grocery store parking lot, even though he knew it was stolen.
On the evening of Nov. 15, Filler called Lamar.
“He was absolutely distraught,” Lamar said. “He told me about the trouble with the laptop. He didn’t want to be prosecuted and go to jail. He said he hadn’t stolen the computer.”
Filler also told his friend that he wanted to kill himself, somehow using an airplane, but he backed off. Filler’s parents were so concerned that they drove through the night to Clear Lake from their home in Fort Wayne, Ind.
On Nov. 16, Filler, whose private pilot’s license had lapsed, hired the Cessna with 23-year-old Benito Mu?as pilot and instructor and took off. But, police said, for some reason they were unable to get to the altitude that Filler wanted. The next day they tried again, and Filler took his life.
Given his emotional state and the fact that he had been talking about killing himself, it is perhaps not surprising that Filler carried out his plans. What Lamar and others who knew him well cannot bring themselves to believe is that Filler stole a computer.
“I believe he bought a hot computer,” Lamar said. “Look, I knew this guy. He was a straight arrow.”
There is nothing obvious in Filler’s past to indicate he was anything but a “straight arrow.”
Lamar first met him in 1978 when both were working on the space shuttle program at McDonnell Douglas Corp. In 1981, Filler went to work for Rockwell International.
In 1996, acting on NASA’s desire to consolidate the many contractors, the United Space Alliance was created to act as the lead agency, and Filler found himself employed there as a senior engineer doing testing and scheduling for the space station.
He was active in the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, serving in leadership roles at the local and regional levels. He was single and an active member of University Baptist Church in Clear Lake.
A United Space Alliance spokesman said that at the time of his death, there were no plans to terminate Filler, and he did not know anything about pending layoffs by the company. But there is no doubt in Lamar’s mind that Filler firmly believed he would be laid off soon and had even begun looking for a job.
Filler was particularly distraught because he believed that in the tightly knit aerospace community, any hint of scandal involving theft from NASA would kill his career, Lamar said.
“It was just one too many things,” Lamar said. “He was married to his career. He was concerned that this (the theft investigation) would have a deleterious effect on his efforts to find another job.”