Woman In Court Over Neil Armstrong Moon Rock Gift
Joann Davis had a moon rock. Yes, it was real. A gift, she said, from Neil Armstrong to her late husband. She also had an ill son and the Lake Elsinore resident wanted to help with his medical care.
Feeling desperate she contacted NASA about her intention to sell it. That led to a nightmare situation on May 19, 2011, when Davis stood in the parking lot of a Denny’s restaurant in pants soaked in urine, answering questions from a federal agent about a rice-sized piece of moon.
“He kept saying, ‘You will be going to federal court, you will be going to federal jail,’ ” Davis said Friday. An indignant federal appeals court on Thursday criticized Davis’ detention by NASA agent Norman Conley in the Denny’s parking lot, calling it “unreasonably prolonged and unnecessarily degrading.”
Conley detained Davis even though he knew she was nearly 75 years old, had urinated in her pants during the sting, had reached out to NASA herself and was having financial problems, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said.
The court was “determining whether a federal agent could be sued for wrongful detention under these circumstances,” said Davis’ Redlands-based lawyer, Peter Schlueter. And their decision was “absolutely, yes.” Lunar material gathered on the Apollo missions is considered government property, and her email prompted an investigation that brought six armed officers to the Denny’s that day in a sting operation to seize the rock.
Instead of asking Davis to surrender the rock to NASA, Conley “organized a sting operation involving six armed officers to forcibly seize a lucite paperweight containing a moon rock the size of a rice grain from an elderly grandmother,” 9th Circuit Chief Judge Sidney Thomas wrote. The appeals panel upheld a lower court ruling denying Conley immunity from Davis’ lawsuit alleging wrongful detention.
“In the end, Ms. Davis spent her whole life proudly working for aerospace and the government, only to be jumped by a NASA-organized swat team because someone in NASA made a mistake and wanted to get it back,” said Schlueter. “And they did it in a way that humiliated her.”
John Rubiner, an attorney for Conley, said he was examining the ruling and had not decided what to do next. He said a lower court judge, Consuelo Marshall in Los Angeles, determined that Conley had asked Davis if she wished to use the bathroom to clean up and whether she wanted to speak with him at her home, but she declined.
Marshall also said there was no evidence that Davis or her husband legally acquired or possessed the moon rock. NASA lunar experts later confirmed the authenticity of the moon rock in Davis’ possession, but prosecutors never filed charges against her, the 9th Circuit said.
Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, had told investigators that he never gave or sold lunar material to anyone, according to an affidavit in the case. He died in 2012. Davis sought $1.7 million for the rock.
In addition to the moon rock, Davis claimed she had 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. Investigators did not seek to seize that item.
The case will now go back to the lower court, Schlueter said. It’s been a long fight for Davis. “I’ve been waiting almost six years,” she said, noting she will be 80 next month. Davis’ son died seven months after the incident. If she is successful in her suit, she says she would like to build a picnic area at Whitefish Lake in Montana as a memorial to both her son and her daughter, who has also passed away. Source: Press Enterprise