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Joseph Gutheinz: The Moon Rock Hunter

Gutheinz in his law office. Courtesy of Joe Gutheinz

How did you become known as “The Moon Rock Hunter”?

My students, who participated in my Moon Rock Project, called me the “Moon Rock Hunter” (a knock off of the Crocodile Hunter), and when they talked to the press, the nickname stuck. It was repeated over and over again in such publications as the Irish Times, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Saturday Evening Post, and the History Channel.

It is predicated on the fact that I led and went undercover in Operation Lunar Eclipse to recover the Honduras Apollo 17 Goodwill Moon Rock (with the help of H. Ross Perot), and the fact that my students helped find 78 more Apollo era moon rocks, to include three taken home by U.S. Governors. Each of these moon rocks gifts has a value of about $5 million dollars.

Tell us about your work with the Omniplan task force investigation.

Omniplan [which was under contract by Rockwell International — a major contractor for NASA] owner Ralph Montijo had created a number of companies to help defraud NASA of millions of dollars. Government auditors had been frustrated for some time because each time they tried to gain information about the company, they were shut down by its Type A personality owner, Ralph Montijo.

When I transferred from Kennedy Space Center to Johnson Space Center as a Senior Special Agent with NASA Office of Inspector General — in order to go to law school at night — the only thing in my email was a vaguely worded email about Omniplan defrauding NASA. On day one, I was able to discern that Omniplan had been mischarging costs associated with its buildings to NASA in what is known as a leaseback scheme. I quickly assembled a federal task force investigation consisting of 9 agencies and 25 agents, auditors, a real estate inspector, and an FBI financial analyst, and together we proved up 40 different schemes against NASA resulting in the largest count indictment and conviction in NASA history and the closure of seven companies.

Gutheinz practicing a speech on his Omniplan case for a presentation he later made to Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s Economic Advisors. Courtesy of Joe Gutheinz

At any point during the sting operation to recover the Honduras Apollo 17 Goodwill Moon Rock in the 1990s, were you worried that the plan would fall through somehow? How did you feel knowing that it was sold to Alan Rosen for only a tiny fraction of what it was actually worth?

The Honduras Apollo 17 Goodwill Moon Rock as Gutheinz was first shown it while undercover. Courtesy of Joe Gutheinz

Alan Rosen always suspected that we were government agents and would both question us about who we were and test us. For example, after meeting with Rosen at Tuna’s Restaurant in Miami he called me (alias Tony Coriasso) and Bob Cregger (alias John Marta) and had a test for us to prove up that our company, ‘John’s Estate Sales’, was real. He needed five names of customers he could call at 8:00 pm that night. I handed the phone to Cregger and called and arranged that five of our agents’ home phones could be called, with them each pretending to be customers. It worked and the sting operation continued. As for the price he was selling it for, it was a definite mark-up, but it did not change what he was trying to sell or its significance.

How many moon rocks have you recovered? Where are they now?

We recovered the Honduras Goodwill Moon Rocks, and my students and I helped recover 78 more. All of the moon rocks that we helped recover are back in government/public hands.

Gutheinz collecting rocks with his son, David. Courtesy of Joe Gutheinz

Why was no one accounting for the gifted Apollo 11 and 17 Moon Rocks and lunar dust from the Nixon, Ford, and Carter Administrations?

This was a real problem that I discerned during Operation Lunar Eclipse. NASA’s position was that these were gifts and no longer their concern. As for the nations, states and territories that received them they had poor guidance on how to inventory and protect these national treasures. They often simply forgot that they even had them, and they would end up in desks, a shoe box, a garage, a pocket, etc.

What is your stance on loaning out moon rocks and Apollo era lunar samples? Should we be doing more of it? Should there be tighter security measures around loan outs?

I have no problem with NASA loaning moon rocks to universities, scientists and museums, providing that NASA has a tight inventory and control over these pieces of history and that the recipients secure them as they would an expensive diamond or artwork. The fact is not only were gifted moon rocks lost and stolen but so too were loaned moon rocks.

What are both the financial and sentimental values of moon rocks? Why are they considered national treasures?

When thinking of Apollo era moon rocks, you have to consider their rarity, government control and historical value. If a misprinted coin can have and astronomical price tag, why not something brought back by man from the moon.

Billboard at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center when Gutheinz gave a speech about missing and stolen moon rocks to personnel there. Courtesy of Joe Gutheinz

Can you tell us about the Operation Lunar Eclipse movie you’re involved in with Todd Douglas Miller? When we can expect to see it?

Operation Lunar Eclipse is a movie that has been largely filmed, with an unknown air date. However, it pertains to the recovery of an Apollo 17 moon rock, and the 50th anniversary of Apollo 17 is in 2022.

Gutheinz in a flight suit (with his sister Dianne). Courtesy of Joe Gutheinz

Can you tell us about your work in aviation safety and security and why you’re an advocate for transparency in NASA? Why is it important?

While in the U.S. Army flight school, I was directly behind my friend when the helicopter he was flying in spined to the ground killing him. I watched him go down, helpless. This was his first solo flight and after I gave the eulogy for him, at a memorial service, I had my first solo flight. I have always wondered if I could have done anything to save him. As an agent with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and then Office of Inspector General for the Department Transportation (DOT OIG), I investigated pilots and companies that posed a danger to aviation, and I continued that work with NASA with cases like my Russian Mir Space Station investigation and my astronaut impersonator (real world airline transport pilot) investigation. My goal was to prevent accidents that take lives.

Gutheinz and his wife when he was being filmed at NASA’s Space Flight Center for Todd Douglas Miller’s film Operation Lunar Eclipse. Courtesy of Joe Gutheinz

What’s next for you? Are your moon rock hunting days behind you?

When I retire from my law firm, my wife and I will travel the world and, in the process, I will hunt down the moon rocks that have been written off. Beginning with the New York with Nelson Rockefeller’s Apollo 11 Moon Rock, I shall then travel to Spain in search of General Franco’s Apollo 11 Moon Rock, and then to Romania in search of Nicolae Ceausescu’s Apollo 17 moon rock. I believe these moon rocks can be found and that I can find them. We shall see if a capitalist, fascist or communist has the best track record when protecting moon rocks.

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Jana Meisenholder

Jana Meisenholder

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Independent journalist focusing on culture, true crime, and human interest stories. Editor @unearthedstories. Living in the US with a Vegemite accent.