NASA sting terrifies woman, 74

Oct 24, 2011 By THOMAS WATKINS , Associated Press

(AP) -- The elaborate mission to recover a moon rock led NASA agents to one of the most down-to-earth places: a Denny's restaurant in Riverside County.

But at the end of the sting operation, agents were left holding a speck of smaller than a grain of rice and a 73-year-old suspect who was terrified by armed officials.

Five months after NASA investigators and local agents swooped into the restaurant and hailed their operation as a cautionary tale for anyone trying to sell national treasure, no charges have been filed, NASA isn't talking and the case appears stalled.

The target, Joann Davis, a grandmother who says she was trying to raise money for her sick son, asserts the lunar material was rightfully hers, having been given to her space-engineer husband by in the 1970s.

"It's a very upsetting thing," Davis, now 74, told The Associated Press. "It's very detrimental, very humiliating, all of it a lie."

The strange case centers on a speck of authenticated moon rock encased in an acrylic-looking dome that appears to be a paperweight. For years, NASA has gone after anyone selling lunar material gathered on the because it is considered government property, so cannot be sold for profit.

Still, NASA has given hundreds of lunar samples to nations, states and high-profile individuals but only on the understanding they remain government property. NASA's inspector general works to arrest anyone trying to sell them.

The case was triggered by Davis herself, according to a search warrant affidavit written by Norman Conley, an agent for the inspector general.

She emailed a NASA contractor May 10 trying to find a buyer for the rock, as well as a nickel-sized piece of the heat shield that protected the as it returned to earth from the first successful to the moon in 1969.

"I've been searching the internet for months attempting to find a buyer," Davis wrote. "If you have any thoughts as to how I can proceed with the sale of these two items, please call."

Davis told AP the items were among many of the space-related heirlooms her husband left her when he died in 1986. She said she had worked as a lexicographer and he had worked as an engineer for North American Rockwell, which contracted for NASA during the Apollo era.

Davis claims Armstrong gave the items to her husband, though the affidavit says the first man on the moon has previously told investigators he never gave or sold lunar material to anyone.

In follow-up phone conversations with a NASA agent, Davis acknowledged the rock was not sellable on the open market and fretted about an agent knocking on her door and taking the material, which she was willing to sell for "big money underground."

"She must know that this is a questionable transaction because she used the term `black market,'" Agent Conley states in the search warrant.

Curiously, though, Davis agreed to sell the sample to NASA for a stellar $1.7 million. She said she wanted to leave her three children an inheritance and take care of her sick son.

NASA investigators then arranged the sting, where Conley met with Davis and her current husband at the Denny's at Lake Elsinore in Riverside County.

Soon after settling into a booth, Davis said, she pulled out the moon sample and about half a dozen sheriff's deputies and NASA investigators rushed into the eatery.

When officers in flack vests took a hold of her, the 4-foot-11 woman said she was so scared she lost control of her bladder and was taken outside to a parking lot, where she was questioned and detained for about two hours.

"They grabbed me and pulled me out of the booth," Davis claimed. "I had very, very deep bruises on my left side."

Conley declined to comment and NASA Office of the Inspector General spokeswoman Renee Juhans said she could not talk about an ongoing investigation.

Davis was eventually allowed home, without the moon rock, and was never booked into a police station or charged.

The affidavit states authorities believed Davis was in possession of stolen government property but so far they have not publicly revealed any proof.

"This (is) abhorrent behavior by the federal government to steal something from a retiree that was given to her," said Davis's attorney, Peter Schlueter, who is planning legal action.

Joseph Gutheinz, a University of Phoenix instructor and former NASA investigator who has spent years tracking down missing moon rocks, said prosecuting Davis could prove tricky.

Gutheinz said he recently learned that NASA did not always take good care of lunar materials. In some instances, space suits were simply hosed off and any moon dust on them lost forever.

While bigger rocks, such as those given to various countries and museums were carefully inventoried and tracked, it now appears there are unknown numbers of much smaller pieces circulating in the public. Some of these may have been turned into paperweights and informally given away by NASA engineers.

"I have a real moral problem with what's happened here in California," Gutheinz said. "I've always taken the position that no one should own an Apollo-era . They belong to the people. But if we did such a poor job of safeguarding (,) I cannot fault that person."

About 2,200 samples of lunar rocks, core samples, pebbles, sand and dust - weighing about 840 pounds - were brought to Earth by NASA's Apollo lunar landing missions from 1969 to 1972. A recent count showed 10 states and more than 90 countries could not account for their shares of the gray rocks.

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albenza
5 / 5 (1) Oct 24, 2011
Well.. there you have it. A economical reason for why we need to go to the moon (again?). Apparently moon rocks are worth more than diamonds.
Now all we need is a calculation for how many rocks we need returned to earth to profit from the trip. Maybe a "moon rock cannon" could be placed on the moon to shoot back stones, NASA could then pick them up from low orbit and sell them on ebay.
Doug_Huffman
1 / 5 (2) Oct 24, 2011
There are nearly a million, 10^6 armed federal thugs outside the armed services. Add NASA's JBT.

The Posse Comitatus Act needs expansion, update and teeth.
hush1
not rated yet Oct 24, 2011
Nothing belongs to NASA.
And now a inevitable comment from this website's local 'prominence'. Oliver K. Manual
Cynical1
not rated yet Oct 24, 2011
Bet they wouldn't have done this to Donald Trump if HE had a piece o moon rock...
Cynical1
not rated yet Oct 24, 2011
And this begs the question - why do the type of people who perform these stupid "stings" - always manage to end up in government jobs, not jail?
psyphil
not rated yet Oct 25, 2011
Just goes to show you how dumb our government can be, not only does it appear that they legally have no right to it, they offered 1.7 mil for it when it is smaller than a grain of rice. It seems to me they made a deal and should be held to it. I wonder how much that little sting cost us tax payers. Maybe they should have gone after medical marijuana users which the state has decided is legal. Too bad stupid is not tax returnable.
Gendou
not rated yet Oct 26, 2011
Just goes to show how dumb it is to try and sell something on the black market!
Shootist
not rated yet Oct 26, 2011
NASA is a moribund bureaucracy that needs to be closed.