This image displayed on a search warrant provided by the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California shows a very small piece of moon rock, center, taken from Joann Davis during a sting operation where NASA investigators and local agents swooped into a Denny’s restaurant to detain Davis, trying to sell a moon rock. (AP Photo/U.S. District Court for the Central District of California)
ANGELES (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
at the end of the sting operation, agents were left holding a speck of
lunar dust smaller than a grain of rice and a 74-year-old suspect who
was terrified by armed officials.
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.
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 Neil Armstrong in the
“It’s a very upsetting thing,” Davis told The Associated Press. “It’s very detrimental, very humiliating, all of it a lie.”
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 Apollo
missions because it is considered government property, so cannot be
sold for profit.
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.
case was triggered by Davis herself, according to a search warrant
affidavit written by Norman Conley, an agent for the inspector general.
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
Apollo 11 space capsule as it returned to earth from the first
successful manned mission to the moon in 1969.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
must know that this is a questionable transaction because she used the
term ‘black market,'” Agent Conley states in the search warrant.
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.
investigators then arranged the sting, where Conley met with Davis and
her current husband at the Denny’s at Lake Elsinore in Riverside County.
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.
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
“They grabbed me and pulled me out of the booth,” Davis claimed. “I had very, very deep bruises on my left side.”
declined to comment and NASA Office of the Inspector General
spokeswoman Renee Juhans said she could not talk about an ongoing
Davis was eventually allowed home, without the moon rock, and was never booked into a police station or charged.
affidavit states authorities believed Davis was in possession of stolen
government property but so far they have not publicly revealed any
(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.
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.
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.
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
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 moon rock. They belong to the people. But if we did such a
poor job of safeguarding (lunar samples,) I cannot fault that person.”
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.
SOURCE: The Associated Press