SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A federal agent unnecessarily degraded an elderly woman when he interrogated her for nearly two hours in 2011 after seizing a moon rock she said her late husband had received from astronaut Neil Armstrong, a federal appeals court said Thursday.
Joann Davis was having financial problems and reached out to NASA for help selling a paperweight containing the rock. Her email prompted an investigation by Norman Conley, a special agent with NASA's Office of Inspector General, that led to a sting operation at a California Denny's restaurant.
Lunar material gathered on the Apollo missions is considered government property, and NASA has gone after people selling it.
Conley detained Davis — who was nearly 75 years old — even though he knew she had urinated in her pants during the sting, had reached out to NASA herself and was having financial problems stemming in part from her son's medical care, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said.
"Conley's detention of Davis, an elderly woman, was unreasonably prolonged and unnecessarily degrading," 9th Circuit Chief Judge Sidney Thomas wrote for the court. Instead of telling Davis that her possession of the paperweight was illegal and asking her to surrender it 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," Thomas said.
The appeals panel upheld a lower court ruling denying Conley immunity from Davis' lawsuit alleging wrongful detention.
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. Marshall said Davis told a confidential informant retained by NASA that she knew of other people who had gotten in trouble for possessing lunar rock, according to court documents. 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.
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, who died in 2012, had told investigators that he never gave or sold lunar material to anyone, according to an affidavit in the case.