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NASA agent faces heat for 'degrading' moon rock sting during which grandmother wet herself

Retiree grilled after trying to flog heirlooms to foot medical bills

A NASA agent can be sued for allegedly subjecting a 74-year-old granny to a "degrading" two-hour interrogation over a sliver of moon rock.

That's according to the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco, which late last week ruled space agency investigator Norman Conley is not, at least in this case, immune from the law.

Back in 2011, Joann Davis and her 70-year-old husband Paul Cilley were collared in a NASA-led sting operation, and grilled by officials in a Denny's parking lot in Lake Elsinore, California. During this public interrogation, Davis wet her pants after her pleas to use the bathroom were ignored, it is claimed.

Why the humiliating questioning? Because the couple had a rather interesting keepsake they wanted to sell to settle their son's medical bills: a paperweight containing lunar rock the size of a single grain of rice.

And Uncle Sam really, really wanted it back.

Davis and her first husband Robert had both worked at North American Rockwell in the 1960s, building parts for the Apollo space program. After the first manned moon landing, the family claims Neil Armstrong gave Robert a fragment of the moon and a small piece of Apollo 11's heat shield as a thank you for the brilliant engineer's hard work.

The two objects were separately encased in lucite and used as paperweights by Robert. When he died in 1986, they were left to his wife. In 2011, Mrs Davis ran into financial difficulties and planned to sell the two paperweights to foot her son's medical bills and help her raise several grandchildren after her daughter passed away.

She emailed NASA for advice on how to sell the trinkets. She was then telephoned by someone calling himself Jeff who claimed to be a broker. Jeff said he had heard the grandmother wanted to flog her cosmic memorabilia, and claimed he had previously worked on the space shuttle program. However, unbeknownst to Davis, Jeff was in fact a NASA special agent called Norman Conley.

Conley knew but for some reason, over the course of seven long phone calls, didn't tell Davis that selling moon rock is straight up illegal. All samples taken from our natural satellite on the Apollo missions are the property of the US government and cannot be hawked legally. But rather than tell Davis this, Conley chose to set up a sting operation to recover the rock and heat shield shards. Davis even told Jeff she knew someone had been jailed for touting moon rock, but she believed she was in the clear because the material was a legit gift.

Davis had stressed to Conley that she wanted to "do things legally" because she was "just not an illegal person." Jeff agreed, saying "you and I are both legal people," and yet he warned her "the sale of a moon rock ... can't be done publicly," court documents [PDF] state.

That stings

Still using the moniker Jeff, Conley arranged to meet Davis and her husband at a Denny's diner to discuss the matter. To handle the apparently dangerous septuagenarians – Davis stands an intimidating 4ft 11in tall – the agent brought along three armed Feds and three of the Riverside County Sheriff's officers.

After exchanging pleasantries, Conley suddenly grabbed Davis' hand and snatched her moon rock paperweight from her, while an agent restrained Davis' husband by gripping the back of his neck and holding his arm behind his back. The pair were searched and then marched into the parking lot where they were quizzed for about two hours.

On the way out, Davis told her interrogators twice that she was losing control of her bladder and was in dire need of a visit to the restroom, and these pleas were ignored, it is claimed. She then had to urinate in her trousers, which she told Conley made her "very uncomfortable." Conley claims he offered her "a number of remedies" for her wet clothing, but she refused – a version of events Davis disputes.

After the questioning was over, the couple was released, and Conley asked prosecutors to bring charges against Davis. However, the authorities declined to bring any further action.

Not so Davis, who sued Uncle Sam and the NASA agent, alleging wrongful detention under the Fourth Amendment. Conley tried to shut down the lawsuit by arguing for immunity as a public servant, and asked for a summary judgment, but this request was denied by the district courts.

Conley and his bosses kicked the matter up to the appeals court, which has sided with the district judge: Davis can indeed sue Conley, and he is not entitled to immunity. Normally, US government workers cannot be personally taken to court just for doing their job as long as they follow the Constitution – you have to challenge Uncle Sam if you have a problem with its decisions – but in this case, Conley must face the allegations.

"Davis, who is an elderly woman, was detained by Conley in a public parking lot for two hours, while she stood in urine-soaked pants, and Conley questioned her incident to a search, concerning Davis’ possession of a paperweight containing a rice-grain-sized bit of lunar material," said Chief Judge Sidney Thomas in his ruling on Thursday.

"The district court correctly concluded that Davis has raised genuine issues of material fact as to whether Conley's detention of Davis was unreasonably prolonged and degrading ... and that Conley was not entitled to qualified immunity as a matter of law."

Davis' earlier attempt to sue the US government was dismissed by a federal judge, although she is now free to pursue Conley. Meanwhile, Armstrong, who died in 2012, maintained he never once gave any moon rock or other lunar materials to anyone. ®

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