The rest of the story about the Honduran Moon Rock
To the Editor:
I just read Frank Zotter’s article Judicial Follies: The Missing Moon Rock Caper with interest, both because it was well written and because he was writing about the forfeiture case which followed the investigation where my team of agents and I recovered the Honduras Apollo 17 Goodwill Moon Rock, this investigation, an undercover sting operation, was called Operation Lunar Eclipse. In 1998, I was a Senior Special Agent with NASA’s Office of Inspector General and I had just closed my investigations into the Russian Space Program and the Russian Mir Space Station’s fire and collision, when a couple of major con-artists, selling bogus moon rocks, came to NASA OIG’s attention. I was concerned that my agency was reactive when it came to these types of crimes and so I decided to go proactive.
In an effort to con the con artists I created a fictitious company, John’s Estate Sales, and brought in a U.S. Postal Inspector Bob Cregger. Bob had worked on my Omniplan Task Force Investigation which had resulted in the largest count indictment and conviction in NASA history. Bob took on the undercover identity of John Marta and I took on the identity of Tony Coriasso, chief salesman of John’s Estate Sales. I had previously used the handle Tony Coriasso when working for another agency, and so I was comfortable with the name. Out of a bunker at Johnson Space Center I had a dedicated hello line in a cipher room across from my office.
Cregger and I decided to place a quarter page advertisement in USA Today titled “Moon Rocks Wanted,” and Cregger’s agency footed the bill for the advertisement and my agency did the art work.
Shortly after the advertisement was published a man contacted me and offered to sell me a moon rock and plaque from either Central America or South America. Several flags in that part of the world are identical flags, except for the center of the flag. The seller showed me the recipient flag on the plaque with what we later discerned was the Honduras Goodwill Moon Rock, via a webpage but the center of the flag was concealed as was the name of the recipient country on the metal plates affixed to the plaque. Upon seeing the moon rock and plaque I became convinced that this was one of the 270 such displays that Presidents Nixon and Ford gave to the nations of the world and that for the first time ever we may be in position to recover a real moon rock via a sting operation.
For several weeks we negotiated back and forth with the “seller,” I don’t use the names of the parties I investigated in the past, until finally we met at a waterfront restaurant in Miami called Tuna’s Restaurant. The “seller” offered to sell us the moon rock for $5 million and at that restaurant we discerned from the seller that the moon rock had not been declared when brought into the country by a third party. Listening in on the encounter were U.S. Customs Agents Dwight Weikel and David Attwood, members of my team.
We had the probable cause for a seizure warrant but no rock, as the seller made it clear that he didn’t trust us and he also wanted proof that we had $5 million.
To prove up that we had $5 million we had to have a bank provide a statement that there was money set aside for that purpose of buying a moon rock. After trying a number of federal agencies I recalled the high admiration my father had for H. Ross Perot. My father was a career Marine and he believed that Mr. Perot was a true patriot. I called Mr. Perot’s Dallas based office and was shocked when I actually was able to get through to Mr. Perot’s private secretary. However, 20 minutes later I was astonished when Mr. Perot personally called me back and said “Hello Joe, how can I help you.” I told him I needed $5 million and why, to which he responded “No problem.”
Subsequently, because of Mr. Perot, a bank official wrote a letter stating we had $5 million set aside for the moon rock and all that was left were the details. The seller agreed to produce it in a bank vault of his choosing in Miami and I agreed to pick the bank officer that would go into the vault and take a picture of it. The bank officer was actually an undercover agent armed with a seizure warrant and when the agent and Rosen stepped out of the bank Cregger and I were sitting on “the sellers” trunk, and in that trunk was the plaque that President Nixon so long ago gave to the people of Honduras. It took us years to do, but finally I was flown up to NASA Headquarters where the Honduras Goodwill Moon Rock was represented to the people of Honduras, via that nation’s Ambassador. The moon rock and plaque are now on display in a museum in Honduras.
— Joseph R. Guntheinz, Jr., Friendswood, Texas
Editor’s note: Joe Gutheinz is now a retired Senior Special Agent with NASA OIG and the General Partner at the Gutheinz Law Firm, LLP. He is an Adjunct Professor of Law at Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University. He has helped track down numerous moon rocks, after Operation Lunar Eclipse, with his students at two other colleges where he has taught.
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