The NASA sting operation to recover a moon back in May of this year, resulted in the recovery of a piece of lunar dust smaller than a grain of rice and a 73-year-old female suspect scared and believing she was wrongly manhandled and her property taken away.
Five months after NASA investigators and local agents swooped into the Denny's in Riverside County, Calif., using their operation as an example for anyone trying to sell national treasure, no charges have been filed, NASA isn't talking and the case appears stalled.
The affidavit states authorities believed Joanne Davis was in possession of stolen government property but so far they have not publicly revealed any proof.
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 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 Apollo missions 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.
Another example includes an Alaskan man who found a lunar rock in the rubble of an Anchorage museum that suffered a fire. According to Dark Government, Coleman Anderson kept the moon rock for 37 years after rescuing it from a dumpster, and he is now being investigated for the recovery of the rock. Dark Government explains that Joe Gutheinz set out to recover or locate the 230 rocks that were given by the United States to governments around the world:
Gutheinz, a former senior investigator for NASA’s Office of Inspector General and now an attorney near Houston, said it appears that more than half of those rocks are missing, destroyed or otherwise unaccounted for.
“I firmly believe that to honor the memory of the 17 astronauts who died in furtherance of our space effort, and the 12 individuals who walked on the moon, that the appropriate place for a moon rock or dust is in a museum and not in private hands,” said Gutheinz, who while an agent for NASA in 1998 went undercover to recover the Honduras Goodwill moon rock, which was being offered on the black market for $5 million.
To date, they’ve located 70 of them. Some had been misplaced, a few stolen. Three state governors accidentally took their state’s rocks home after leaving office. Still, Gutheinz said, his students have found that 160 of the rocks remain missing, lost, stolen or destroyed.
Reuters also reported a case of a misplaced moon rock being found in former President Bill Clinton's files from when he was governor of Arkansas.
Davis made herself a target for the sting when 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 Apollo 11 space capsule as it returned to earth from the first successful manned mission 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.
"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 moon rock. They belong to the people. But if we did such a poor job of safeguarding (lunar samples,) 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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.