Joseph Gutheinz is a criminal defense lawyer based in Friendswood, where he practices with two of his six sons. The successful lawyer and college instructor is a former Army intelligence officer, aviator, and NASA senior special agent. But he is most famous for finding elusive moon rocks that have been missing since the Apollo 17 mission days. In the late ’90s, he began searching for them and founded the “Moon Rock Project,” with the sole purpose of locating these important resources. To date, 79 moon rocks have been recovered—documentaries and press coverage ensued and now Gutheinz is working with an award-winning director on an upcoming feature film titled Operation Lunar Eclipse. We sat down with Gutheinz to learn more about starring in documentaries, teaching kids to think critically, and searching for the truth.
You are considered an expert in investigating missing moon rocks. How and when did it all begin? In 1998, I was a senior special agent with NASA’s Office of Inspector General, and as such, I could form and lead task force investigations and undercover sting operations. In the 1990’s, I led several multi-agency task force investigations against Omniplan, Rockwell International, Boeing, United Space Alliance, and Lockheed Martin, and during a lull in those investigations, I decided to launch an undercover sting operation known as Operation Lunar Eclipse. The purpose of this sting operation was to seek out con artists selling bogus moon rocks, which was happening all over the world. I created a fictitious company, John’s Estate Sales, and took on the undercover identity of Tony Coriasso, an identity I first used a decade earlier while I was a special agent with U.S. Department of Transportation OIG. I brought in a U.S. postal inspector, Robert Cregger, to play the part of John Marta. I read up on moon rocks and spoke to those in the know at NASA so that I could sell the con artist that I was representing a buyer. NASA created an advertisement for USA Today and the Postal Inspection Service paid for it. Sure enough, a seller contacted us and posted a picture of an Apollo 17 plaque and moon rock. It took me two months to convince the seller to produce the moon rock, which he did only after we provided proof that we had his $5 million selling price. This sting operation is the subject of an upcoming 2017 feature length movie, Operation Lunar Eclipse. Earlier this year, this sting operation was featured on NASA’s Unexplained Files, on the Science Channel, Season 3, Episode 8. It was one of 11 episodes I was in this year, and five of my NASA cases were featured.
You began teaching courses on moon rocks back in 2002. What are a few examples of lecture topics? I was actually teaching my students how to conduct criminal investigations and wanted to give the students a real-world project to handle, the Moon Rock Project. The students tracked down missing Apollo-era moon rocks all over the world and were instrumental in assisting in the recovery of 79, including the Colorado, West Virginia, and Missouri Apollo 17 Goodwill Moon Rocks that had each been entrusted to past governors of those states.
What was it like filming 2014’s Missing Moon Rocks, which was directed by Emmy Award-winning director Troy Hale? Troy Hale is a remarkable talent and won an Emmy for Missing Moon Rocks, which in large part was about my students investigations of missing moon rocks. It was cool working with a director who has now won over 20 Emmys. Interestingly, there was another documentary show that came out the same year titled Missing Moon Rocks on the History Channel. Other documentaries talking about the Moon Rock Project have appeared on the BBC, OWN network, and on Stargazing Live.
What are the skills someone needs to successfully launch and complete an investigation? The first needed skill is the ability to ask the right questions. Then listen to the answers given and be able to ask the right follow-up questions. I had a high confession rate as I could tell when someone was lying and knew when to press. Agents that I encountered who lacked people skills also failed in solving cases. You have to have the ability to follow the breadcrumbs and not lose focus when one path after the next leads you down the wrong road. Good investigators have both tenacity and patience.
What is the craziest thing you uncovered in one of your investigations? The NASA administrator (head of NASA) put out a press release that a Tupperware container filled with cocaine was found in one of NASA’s most secure facilities, the Orbiter Processing Facility at Kennedy Space Center. I was tasked to find out who brought the cocaine into Kennedy. For three days I interviewed workers on all three shifts and secured 13 confessions about contemporaneous drug use while employed at Kennedy, but no one admitted to the Tupperware container. Each day when I went into the OPF and passed its giant safe door, I would see the dog that alerted to the cocaine. Finally, I stopped and petted the dog and spoke to its handler. I learned that the dog was not a drug dog but an uncertified bomb dog and that the test that was performed on the “cocaine” was a taste test. I immediately ordered a lab test, and sure enough, the substance was talcum powder.
You have appeared in 11 episodes of NASA’s Unexplained Files talking about your experiences as a senior special agent. How did you prepare for those segments? Actually, I have always had a great memory when it comes to my cases, so it was a fairly easy matter to talk about my Mir fire investigation, Mir collision investigation, my investigation of the theft of Pre-launch Assessment Review (PAR) tapes, Operation Lunar Eclipse, and in my latest episode, the investigation and arrest of NASA’s most successful/infamous astronaut impersonator.
Tell us a little bit about the feature-length film you are now working on. Operation Lunar Eclipse is by Emmy Award-winning director Todd Miller, and it brings back all four members of my Operation Lunar Eclipse sting operation. It has already been filmed at Kennedy Space Center, Marshall Space Flight Center, Washington D.C., and it will still be filmed in Miami and Honduras. It is due to be released in 2017.
What do you like most about being an investigator? I loved being an investigator because I loved figuring out how the bad guys did it. Working at NASA was a treat as our bad guys were brighter and a bit more clever than your average criminals; in some cases, they were literally rocket scientists.
About being a lawyer? My father, Lt. Col. Joseph Gutheinz Sr. (USMC deceased), was a lawyer after serving 30 years in the Marines, and two of my six sons are also lawyers. My law partners/sons are both majors in the Army Reserve (Major Michael John Gutheinz and Major James O’Leary Gutheinz). I was first an Army intelligence officer and Army aviator and then a special agent. Like my father and my sons, I enjoy being a part of a worthy endeavor, and serving my country is an easy fit. However, my faith tells me that it is also important to serve my fellow man as well. As an agent, I studied the attorneys who represented the subjects in my cases, and some were awesome attorneys, but some were also terrible and I thought I could do better. When I prevail in a case, I always thank God and I get a great feeling about it, because I believe I am helping a guy or gal get a second chance in life.