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Stealing the Dream
The Consequences of Stealing Space Shuttle Columbia Debris

by Joseph Richard Gutheinz, Jr, J.D.
Retired NASA Office of Inspector General (OIG)
Senior Special Agent

One of the first expressions we learn as children is "finders keepers" and as Americans we generally believe what is on our property is our's to do with as we choose. However, there is a time when we must each grow up and realize that childhood sayings do not fit neatly with Federal law.

Deputy Sheriff Jeffrey D. Arriola found that out the hard way on March 5, 2003, when a grand jury indicted him for theft and obstruction in the investigation of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. He now faces 15 years in prison and a $500,000 fine for picking up with the intent to keep what some might call trash, debris from the Space Shuttle Columbia.

Deputy Arriola is one of several people to be indicted for allegedly stealing Shuttle Columbia debris, the most recent being Michael Pankiewicz, a NASA Kennedy Space Center Quality Assurance employee who also allegedly stole tiles from the Shuttle Atlantis and Discovery, and who now faces 10 years in jail and a $250,000 fine.

As a retired NASA OIG Senior Special Agent I am proud of the superb job my former agency is doing in rounding up these thieves. However, as a criminal defense attorney I know that if some of the people indicted under Federal law for taking debris found on their property or on property open to the public had been charged under state law, the most they would have likely been charged with in Texas would be a Class C Misdemeanor with no possibility of going to jail and only a minor fine.

Why? The destroyed remnants of the Space Shuttle Columbia have little value, and stealing debris under $50.00 in value is a Class C misdemeanor in Texas. While there is no excuse for law enforcement officers and NASA Quality Assurance personnel who engage in the theft of Shuttle Columbia debris, the reality is that the average individuals doing so are ordinary people; students, housewives and the retired who discover a piece of history and then, without thinking it through, choose to keep it.

In a future essay I will address the laws governing the acquisition and sale of shuttle tiles. However, it should come as no surprise that NASA OIG, the FBI and most likely the U.S. Postal Inspection service are now actively engaged in trying to track down all private sales of Shuttle Columbia debris, and in so doing are paying attention to any sales which include the word 'shuttle'.

Receiving stolen property is an offense, state and federal, in its own right. However, the Federal Government has some additional laws that impact buyers of stolen goods. For example it is possible that a buyer could be charged with accessory after the fact, which carries a punishment equal to half of what the thief faces. Further a buyer may be charged with misprision of a felony, for failing to report the crime, which carries a maximum of 3 years in prison and a $500.00 fine.

Therefore my advise, as both a retired NASA OIG Senior Special Agent and a criminal defense attorney is the same. First, avoid the temptation of buying Space Shuttle Columbia debris as it is absolutely illegal, and if caught every U.S. Attorney's Office in America is committed to prosecuting these cases to the full extent of the law. Second, when buying what you consider to be a lawful NASA collectables, secure from the seller as much information as possible to ensure that the sale is above reproach.


United States Department of Justice (2003). Department of Justice Press Release on the Indictment of Jeffrey D. Arriola. United States Attorney's Office, Eastern District of Texas, March 5, 2003

WESH NewsChannel (2003). NASA Worker Accused of Stealing Columbia Debris. April 24, 2003.

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For ten years, Joseph Gutheinz was a Senior Special Agent for NASA's Office of Inspector General (OIG). In 1998, Gutheinz was an Undercover Case Agent for Operation Lunar Eclipse, to seize a moon rock presented to the people of Honduras that was smuggled back into the U.S. for sale. Today, he is a trial attorney who now assists other law offices, individuals, and businesses as an attorney and consultant.