NASA detained widow for selling moon rock speck; court says she can sue

A 75-year-old widow of an engineer who worked for NASA did not know that moon rocks are the property of the federal government and that possession was a crime. So when the California woman tried to sell a paperweight with a speck of lunar rock in 2011 — a gift given to her late husband — federal agents intervened and arrested her, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Now, Joann Davis will be allowed to hold federal agent Norman Conley liable for detaining her for two hours in a public parking lot in urine-soaked pants, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously Thursday. The court ruled that Davis' detention was "unreasonably prolonged and unnecessarily degrading."

In the opinion written by Chief Circuit Judge Sidney R. Thomas for the three-judge panel, Conley, a special agent and criminal investigator for NASA’s Office of Inspector General, “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.”

Davis’ late husband, Robert, was an engineer who managed North American Rockwell’s Apollo project, the Times reported, quoting court documents. During that time, he was given two paperweights — one containing a fragment of lunar material, the other a piece of the Apollo 11 heat shield — as gifts.

After Robert Davis’ death in 1986, Joann Davis experienced financial troubles. She decided to sell the paperweights and contacted several auction houses without success, the Times reported.

She eventually emailed NASA to find a buyer for what she called “rare Apollo 11 space artifacts” explaining how her late husband had received them.

Conley was assigned to the case, the Times reported. He had someone pose as a broker and call Davis. During several conversations, all but one recorded, Davis explained how she obtained the moon rock. She told the agent that she wanted the transaction to be legal.

After obtaining a warrant to search Davis and seize the moon rock, Conley arranged a meeting with her in 2011 at a Denny’s restaurant.

Davis, who was then 75, went to the restaurant with her husband, Paul Cilley, who was about 70, the court said. They had married in 1991.

Davis thought she was going to sell the paperweight and placed it on the table, the court said. Instead, one agent grabbed the paperweight and another detained Cilley, the Times reported.

The agents took the pair to the parking lot and Davis claimed they ignored her when she said she needed to use the restroom, the Times reported.

A federal prosecutor later declined to press charges and Davis sued. Conley contended that as a government agent he was immune from liability. A federal judge rejected that argument and Conley appealed, the Times reported.

“Conley had no law enforcement interest in detaining Davis for two hours while she stood wearing urine-soaked pants in a restaurant’s parking lot during the lunch rush,” Thomas wrote.

Davis’ lawsuit may now proceed.

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