NASA agents try to catch con men selling ordinary earth rocks as moon rocks
The first-ever undercover sting operation to recover a genuine moon rock was about to end in disaster, unless the team from NASA could convince someone — anyone — to give them $5 million.
It was November 1998, and the mission had gone better than anyone could have expected up to that point. In late September, NASA special agent Joseph Gutheinz — hoping to catch con artists peddling ordinary stones and pebbles they claimed came from the moon — had taken out an ad in USA Today promoting his fictitious business buying lunar rocks. He instead heard back from a man who had the real thing, and wanted $5 million for it.
But the seller demanded his own proof. He wanted to know the money was in an actual bank account.
Gutheinz remembers asking any agency he thought could possibly provide the money, from NASA, to the Department of Justice, to the FBI. Some couldn’t get him the money right away, and others couldn’t help at all.
His father considered Texan businessman and philanthropist Ross Perot to be probably “the most patriotic billionaire” in the world, so Gutheinz decided it couldn’t hurt to reach out to him.
He called Perot’s company in Dallas, he said, and explained to a secretary what they would need. His phone rang moments after their conversation.
Perot, on the other end of the line, said: “Hello, Joe, how can I help you?”
“I said, ‘Well, Mr. Perot, I need $5 million to get a moon rock back’ (and he said) ‘no problem,’” Gutheinz recalled over the phone this week. “He was a type A CEO-personality that was capable of making a snap decision .. .none of this bureaucratic sitting around, thinking about something for a month.”
Perot put the money in a private account and asked his bank’s vice presidents to draft a certified letter saying the money was earmarked for this purchase, Gutheinz said. The operation, known as “Operation Lunar Eclipse,” ultimately led to the recovery of a 1.142 gram moon rock.
Gutheinz, a Houston resident, began thinking more about Perot’s impact on their partially improvised, often-troubled mission this month after Perot died following a months-long battle with leukemia.
Other stories of Perot’s acts of kindness have come out since his death, from when he organized a rescue of his company’s employees trapped in an Iranian prison, to when he helped a Fort Worth woman look for her missing son in Hawaii.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody so instantly decisive,” Gutheinz said. “He said, ‘Yes. No problem.’”
Perot’s death came mere weeks before the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. On Saturday, the U.S. will mark the day Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took the first steps on the moon in 1969.
Operation Lunar Eclipse would’ve crumbled without Perot, Gutheinz said. In fact, he said, the mission could’ve ended on multiple occasions, as they spent months trying to convince a smart and suspicious man they truly wanted to buy a moon rock.
Along the way, they relied on some quick thinking, a little bit of luck and the help of the Texas billionaire Perot.
‘Con Artists Welcome’
Gutheinz was in a courtroom for a case against an airline pilot impersonating an astronaut when he sketched out his plan to catch purveyors of fake “moon rocks.”
Jerry Alan Whittredge, he said, had purported to be an “astronaut S1” and a “CIA regent with a secret,” the secret being he was a deadly CIA assassin dubbed “black death” by the Russians. On his resume, he had claimed to be a “Top Gun Trophy Winner” because of his service in Vietnam, Gutheinz said.
“But he was none of those,” he said. “He really was an airline transport pilot, and he really was an engineer. And based on his resume, he talked his way into mission control during a mission and communicated with the astronauts.”
Some of Whittredge’s supposed job titles and award wins — from astronaut S1 to Top Gun Trophy Winner — don’t even exist, he said. But, for years, people believed him.
Waiting around for two hours for Whittredge’s attorney to show up, Gutheinz began sketching out a plan to use this kind of deception to catch con men. He had already discussed with fellow agents their need to be more proactive, not waiting years for a con man to possibly come to them but coming to the con men.
He planned the whole operation right there in court, beginning with his undercover partner: Bob Cregger, a U.S. postal inspector with whom he had worked on a previous case. He wanted Cregger to be involved, he said, because he was a stark contrast to himself.
Whereas Gutheinz would be enthusiastic selling the fiction, he said, Cregger had a dry, Southern, anti-bureaucracy personality that could add credibility. Gutheinz compares the Alabama man to Ron Swanson, a libertarian character from the TV series “Parks and Recreation” who works in local government despite his belief it shouldn’t exist.
Cregger would be John Marta, the owner of the Houston-based John’s Estate Sales. Gutheinz would be Tony Cariasso, a salesman.
Their first move was to put out an ad.
“We want to get to them before they do a lot of damage. So why don’t we put out an ad basically saying, ‘Con Artists Welcome,’” Gutheinz said. “Put a hook in the water and see if we can catch one ... that was the whole idea.”
On Sept. 18, 1998, with the support of NASA, he placed a quarter-page ad in USA Today with a picture of an astronaut on the moon and the caption “Moon Rocks Wanted. Will buy moon rocks/dust.”
He never expected they would hear from someone who had an actual moon rock.
On Sept. 30, a man named Alan Rosen called their dedicated hello line to say he had one. He was able to back up his miraculous claim with a web page that showed a photo of a 10x14 inch plaque with a Lucite ball in the middle holding a tiny rock.
Gutheinz recognized this, immediately, as a Goodwill rock, one of the moon rocks the U.S. presented as gifts to other nations following the 1969 moon landing.
“I’m like, ‘Wow, that’s cool,’” Gutheinz said.
The goal of the entire operation, in that moment, changed.
Gutheinz and Cregger didn’t yet know there was a lot they hadn’t thought through.
‘We weren’t really prepared for it’
Rosen said in that first phone conversation he was convinced he was dealing with undercover agents.
But Gutheinz tried to react quickly, and calmly.
“I said, ‘Look, I hope you’re not an undercover agent,’” he said. “Basically I turned the table on him and tried to make him feel comfortable.”
Rosen was smart, he said, but his downfall was his greed. He had come up with the $5 million price over the phone, citing a legitimate 1993 sale in which someone paid $442,500 for mere moon dust from the Lunar 16 mission.
Gutheinz and Cregger agreed they would provide the funds. They eventually organized a meet-up with Rosen in Miami at a waterside restaurant called Tuna’s.
The two, wearing wires that carried audio to two nearby U.S. Customs agents, showed up early. They were slightly nervous.
And when Rosen arrived, he cracked a joke that almost caused Guthienz and Cregger to give themselves away.
“He kept talking about Central American guys — military types — with AK47s coming around the corner to get the moon rock, or something of that nature,” Gutheinz said. “And then this waiter comes around the corner and drops a pan. And Cregger and I have our Glocks on us, but we’re also in our undercover roles.”
“We started to go for the guns, realized what was going on and laughed it off.”
Rosen didn’t have the moon rock with him, but Gutheinz and Cregger left the meeting feeling they developed a rapport and built trust. That’s what they thought, at least.
Around 8 that night, Rosen called them to say, “I still think you’re agents,” Gutheinz said. He asked them to give up the names of five customers of John’s Estate Sales, right then and there, so he could call them at once.
As Cregger spoke over the phone with Rosen, Gutheinz was calling agents on his phone, asking them to quickly make up stories of a sale with their business. They gave Rosen the agents’ home phone numbers.
The officers, put on the spot, were convincing. And though Gutheinz’s bosses would later vent their frustrations about the agents having to change their home numbers, the gambit worked.
“That was something that realistically he thought we would not be prepared for,” Gutheinz said. “We weren’t really prepared for it. We did it on the spot.”
Rosen’s suspicions persisted into November, when he demanded the proof of the $5 million. But after he received proof of the funds from Perot’s bank, he felt comfortable enough to show them the rock.
His understanding was he would produce it from a private bank vault in Miami and show it to a bank official who could certify it was there. That official, however, was an undercover U.S. Customs agent.
Before Rosen took out the rock, he asked to call Gutheinz and Cregger on their cell phones so he could confirm they were back in Houston.
“Apparently he did not know how cell phones worked,” he said, “because he didn’t realize that we could be anywhere with that number and get calls.”
They sat on the trunk of his car as he went into the bank to produce the rock. Rosen wasn’t arrested, Gutheinz said, but they had warrants and recovered the rock from the bank vault and the plaque from Rosen’s trunk.
The rock went to the Johnson Space Center, where officials confirmed it genuinely came from the moon. NASA officials eventually flew to Honduras and presented it to the nation’s president, finally back where it belonged.
It’s in a Honduran children’s museum today, Gutheinz said.
“At that time,” he said, “it was the first moon rock ever recovered.”
Remembering the mission
Gutheinz and Cregger later found out just how Rosen had gotten his hands on a moon rock.
President Richard Nixon in 1973 presented the Honduras Goodwill Moon Rock to Honduras President Oswaldo Lopez Arellano, Gutheinz said. But, after Lopez was booted out of office in a coup, the moon rock suddenly became available for purchase.
Rosen, a U.S resident, agreed to pay around $30,000 for the rock. In April 1996, Gutheinz said, a man allegedly flew into the U.S. with the moon rock plaque and presented it to him at a Denny’s in exchange for the money.
Gutheinz, who has taught classes at three colleges and the Thurgood Marshall School of Law, said his students have helped recover at least 78 missing moon rocks. There are only three legitimate sources of moon rocks today, he said, including 842 pounds of moon rocks and dust from the Apollo 11, 12, 14, 15, 16 and 17 missions.
Operation Lunar Eclipse was the beginning of it all, Gutheinz said. And he wants to bring attention to it, as well as Perot’s impact.
“I’ve told the story to my students,” he said. “But it really hasn’t gotten in the public eye, and I thought, ‘This is a guy that made this sting operation possible.’”
Gutheinz said he and the other three people who went undercover were interviewed by Todd Douglas Miller for a forthcoming movie called “Operation Lunar Eclipse.” Miller is the filmmaker behind “Apollo 11,” the critically acclaimed 2019 documentary that in vivid detail revives decades-old footage from the 1969 trip to the moon.
Although there is no IMDB page for the movie, it has a website stating the project from Miller and others is set to be released in 2019.
Gutheinz wishes Perot could’ve lived long enough to see the movie, he said.
He hopes he gets posthumous recognition for the operation someday, too.
“Ross Perot was an awesome guy,” he said. “It was the first case of its kind, and if not for Ross Perot, it would not have gone down.”