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NASA seizes purported moon rock, halting its sale

A woman had sought $1.7 million for an artifact she said was from the moon. Lake Elsinore and Riverside County authorities assist the space agency in taking custody of it.

May 21, 2011|By Phil Willon and W.J. Hennigan, Los Angeles Times
  • The nearly full moon rises over the Horicon National Wildlife Refugee in Horicon, Wis.
The nearly full moon rises over the Horicon National Wildlife Refugee in… (Associated Press )

A woman authorities said was claiming to sell a moon rock was questioned in Lake Elsinore on Thursday morning as part of an undercover sting by NASA investigators aided by local police.

The investigation, which spanned several months, led to a meeting in a Lake Elsinore Denny's restaurant on Grape Street, where undercover NASA officials agreed to buy the rock for $1.7 million, according to a report by the Riverside County Sheriff's Department.

When the woman produced an artifact, several Lake Elsinore police investigators and NASA agents swooped in. The federal agents took custody of the rock and are trying to determine if it is genuine.

"It's possible this is a moon rock, but it has to be tested first," said Gail Robinson, deputy inspector general at NASA.

The woman, who has not been identified, was not arrested, Robinson said.

Sheriff's officials said neither her identity nor any more details of the case have been made available to them. Federal agents told them the case was on a "need-to-know basis.''

The manager of the Denny's, just off Interstate 15, said that police "were in and out" Thursday morning and that the woman was not taken away in handcuffs.

"That's all I can really tell you," said the manager, who declined to give his name. "It all happened fast."

Moon rocks are classified as national treasures and owning them is illegal.

Robinson said "it's not all that unusual" for someone to try to sell a piece of the moon.

Twice a year, the space agency's inspector general's office issues a report outlining what space trinkets were found on the black market. A recent report detailed the recovery of two rocket motors from the Apollo missions that put man on the moon, which were on sale on the Internet.

In 2002, three interns at the Johnson Space Center in Houston stole a 600-pound safe with moon rocks from the Apollo moon landings. They tried to sell pieces on the Internet for up to $5,000 a gram and were nabbed in an undercover FBI sting. All three were convicted.

Astronauts who landed on the moon collected 2,415 samples of moon rocks weighing a total of 842 pounds. Most of these rocks were collected during the Apollo 15, 16, and 17 missions. In addition, three unmanned Soviet Luna spacecraft brought 0.66 pounds of lunar samples to Earth, according to NASA's website.

phil.willon@latimes.com

william.hennigan@latimes.com

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