For a company that specializes in focused beams of light, a certain murkiness engulfs Ionatron ( IOTN). The tiny, money-losing company is trying to build laser-powered weapons reminiscent of "Star Trek," but won't say much about its contract with the Pentagon. Meanwhile, a controversial chairman who was twice sanctioned by securities regulators is at the helm. Not that it matters to investors, who sense lightning in a bottle with the three-year-old company's "laser-induced plasma channel weapons" that can "disable people or vehicles." Shares of the Tucson, Ariz.-based company are up 1,100%, to $10.60, since completing a so-called reverse merger in April with lawn-care company U.S. Home and Gardens. The company's stock recently moved from the OTC Bulletin Board to the more respectable Nasdaq Small-Cap Market. Over the past several months, Ionatron has fueled investor expectations by announcing a big expansion plan and comparing its weapons to those produced by stun-gun manufacturer Taser International ( TASR), one of Wall Street's hottest stocks over the past two years. Ionatron's Web site describes its technology as a nonlethal alternative to guns, although "lethal configurations are also available." Similarly,
phasers could be set on stun and kill. Last spring's reverse merger has done more than give a jolt to shares of Ionatron. It resurrected the scandal-tainted career of Robert Howard, Ionatron's octogenarian chairman, who owns roughly one-third of the company's 66 million shares and claims to have invented the "impact dot matrix printer." Wall Street hadn't heard much from Howard since late 1997, when the Securities and Exchange Commission fined him $2.7 million for allegedly issuing "misleading information" about the sales and business prospects of Presstek ( PRST), a small printing-press technology company he helped found. Shares of Presstek surged from $45 to as much as $200 during the one-year period in which the SEC contends the company issued false and misleading statements about its earnings projections.