UNC prof accused of smuggling drugs admits to being extremely naive

jprice@newsobserver.comJune 6, 2012 

The UNC-Chapel Hill physicist being held in an Argentine prison after two kilos of cocaine were found in his luggage has been diagnosed with a personality disorder that – despite three Oxford University degrees – allowed him to be easily duped into carrying the drugs, say supporters and the scientist himself.

Paul Frampton, the Louis D. Rubin, Jr. Distinguished Professor of physics and astronomy, flew to South America after being tricked on the Internet into believing he would be meeting a young model, said his ex-wife and several friends and colleagues, including the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Sheldon Glashow of Boston University and Harvard University, with whom Frampton has written more than a dozen research papers.

Instead, when he got to Bolivia, he was asked by someone else to carry a suitcase to Argentina and, ultimately, the United States. Frampton, 68, was arrested in January at the main airport in Buenos Aires as he tried to fly back to Raleigh-Durham International. He faces up to 16 years in prison.

The drugs, he said, were in a kind of false bottom in a check-in-size suitcase that otherwise was empty.

In two telephone interviews this week from Villa Devoto prison in Buenos Aires Frampton admitted that a normal person would have been leery of accepting a bag under such circumstances.

“I’m an outlier in the naivety quotient as well as IQ,” he said. “I buy that.

“There were, of course, warning signs that most people would have viewed with great suspicion, and this diagnosis as a defense explains the foolishness,” he said. “But I certainly had no idea there were illegal drugs and certainly had no idea of smuggling drugs to make money.”

‘Like a child’

Frampton said his defense attorneys hired a forensic psychologist who met with him twice in prison and diagnosed a schizoid personality disorder that prevents him from making normal social connections and renders him unusually gullible, he said.

Friends and supporters say the outcome was hardly surprising.

“He is totally devoted to physics and to his students, but in the rest of his life he has always been like a child,” said his ex-wife, Anne-Marie Frampton of Durham.

Published reports in Argentina and Britain, where Frampton was born, say the eminent physicist told an Argentine judge that he got caught up in an Internet “honey trap” supposedly involving a well-known model.

In telephone interviews, Frampton has consistently declined to detail the chain of events leading to his arrest, other than to say that he had come to South America to meet a friend. It would harm his defense to say more, he said.

Some of the published stories were inaccurate, he said.

“I can say that I never personally met, spoke to or communicated with a model,” he said.

Asked whether he had been conducting an Internet exchange that led him to believe he would be meeting a woman, he declined to say more.

His ex-wife said the woman was probably fictitious, and that in any case he apparently met with an intermediary, not the woman he had expected to find.

Anne-Marie Frampton said that during one telephone call from prison she had asked him about a posting about his predicament on a physics-related blog that included a woman’s photo and name. Frampton dismissed it, saying that the woman in question’s name was entirely different.

Several friends said Frampton had a history of pursuing young women in foreign lands on the Internet, and that it was another symptom of his personality disorder.

Glashow, the Nobel laureate, said Frampton once persuaded a Chinese woman in her 20s to marry him, but when he flew to China she took one look at him and backed out.

A few weeks after Frampton’s arrest, UNC-CH Provost Bruce Carney wrote him to say he was going to stop Frampton’s $106,835 salary and put him on personal leave because he obviously couldn’t do his job from prison.

A copy of the letter, provided by Frampton, opens this way:

“Dear Paul:

“I was shocked and dismayed to learn that you had been arrested in Buenos Aires last month. I was also surprised that you had missed all the meetings of your General Relativity course prior to that.”

Frampton said that only one student had enrolled in the class and that he had planned to cancel it. He is required to teach two classes a year, and he could make it up by taking on two this fall, he said.

Lawsuit over pay

He filed suit last month in Orange County Superior Court to have his pay restored. He says he has been able to perform his research, has written two research papers, and has been properly advising his graduate students via telephone.

In an earlier interview, one of the graduate students he is assigned said that Frampton had indeed been able to properly advise him via phone.

Last week, though, Judge Allen Baddour turned down Frampton’s request for a preliminary injunction to prevent the university from stopping his pay. His attorney here, Barry Nakell of Chapel Hill, said he’ll keep pursuing the lawsuit.

A university spokeswoman declined Wednesday to discuss the lawsuit but provided copies of documents UNC had filed with the court.

Previously, university officials have said little about Frampton’s dilemma, citing state public records law that prevents them from releasing most personnel information.

The university says in its court filings that Frampton is not able to do his job because, among other things, he obviously can’t teach his classes, participate in faculty committees or hold office hours to meet with students, and that his lack of access to the Internet hinders his ability to do research, collaborate with colleagues and communicate with students.

In court filings, it also said that Frampton hadn’t availed himself of the normal faculty grievance procedure.

It said the university has supported Frampton in various ways. It found a private attorney who would have been paid by Frampton, but whom he rejected in favor of free public defenders. Also, it offered to continue his benefits, including health care, if he paid for them, which he didn’t. And Carney wrote a letter in his support to Argentine authorities.

Faculty support

The university’s response to the suit also says that it sent an emissary to Argentina to discuss Frampton’s case with local officials. That’s partly true: University officials asked a faculty member who was travelling to Argentina for other reasons to meet with the judge and Frampton’s attorneys.

Glashow, who has known Frampton for at least three decades, said that it was outrageous that the university would quit paying Frampton. Harvard, he said, would never have done that to him unless he had been convicted.

The money, he said, is less important than presenting a united front to Argentine justice officials that Frampton isn’t guilty. If, at the end of the court case, the university feels it has grounds to fire Frampton, so be it, he said, but for now the life of an honest man and unusually valuable scientist is the most important thing.

By July or early August, he’ll run out of money and lose his car and apartment here, Frampton said. This week, supporters started a campaign to raise money to help him afford better food in prison, where he’s living in the same room with 79 other prisoners, and perhaps eventually hire a private attorney to replace his court-appointed ones.

UNC mathematics professor Mark Williams is leading the effort, though he said in an interview that that he barely knew Frampton. He felt compelled to help, he said, after months went by and no one else seemed to be stepping forward.

A few weeks ago, he and other friends organized a campaign to reach people who knew Frampton and have them write letters to Argentine authorities via Frampton’s attorneys attesting to his good character.

At last count, Frampton said, more than 40 people, many from the international physics community, had sent letters in his support.

Williams said he had communicated with at least 20 people who knew Frampton, and none believed the scientist was guilty of intentionally trying to smuggle drugs.

“Even people who aren’t particularly friendly towards him or who don’t want to help believe he’s innocent,” Williams said.

A similar case

Even if he is innocent of intentionally trying to smuggle drugs, he could be stuck in prison quite a while, if two recent cocaine smuggling cases there are any indication.

In one, an English woman who admitted her guilt jumped bail, and British authorities have refused to extradite her, saying she wouldn’t be treated properly.

That could hurt Frampton’s attempts to be released while he awaits trial. Despite formal offers of teaching positions with universities there, and the offer of a free apartment by a supporter, a three-judge panel recently denied Frampton’s request to be released until trial.

Worse still, a 55-year-old New Zealand woman who told the judge in her trial that she been duped into visiting by man she met on the Internet and then unwittingly given luggage with drugs hidden inside was convicted in March, even though the judge said he believed her story, according to published reports.

By that standard, said Glashow, the Nobel laureate, Frampton may be guilty, but it’s not even faintly possible that he would knowingly get involved in drugs, either for profit or personal use.

“He doesn’t even drink, except perhaps wine with dinner, and he’s concerned about his health and goes to a gym,” Glashow said. “He is completely dedicated to his research and his students, and for the moment, since his divorce, to chasing girls.”

His ex-wife said she’s particularly worried about what will happen if he is convicted and put among a tougher population of hardened criminals.

In an interview Monday, Frampton said that he remained upbeat about his chances of returning to teach by fall.

In regular calls, though, Anne-Marie Frampton said that she detects a deterioration in his confidence.

“I think he has started to realize the gravity of his situation,” she said.

Fears of prison

His supporters conceded that Frampton is in some ways an unsympathetic figure.

He is an unusually prolific scientist, and has written hundreds of research papers, many of them important. But he has a penchant for boasting about his academic accomplishments, and has an annoying habit of frequently tallying other scientists’ research output and comparing it unfavorably with his own.

But his supporters say that none of that, nor the unseemly behavior with young women on the Internet or the unknowing connection to drug smuggling, warrants the university dropping his pay, let alone the potential of years in a prison that could turn into a death sentence for a man who is nearly 70 years old and has high blood pressure and an impaired sense of how the world really works.

“OK, he was a lonely guy, he was interested in a woman, and he made a lot of stupid decisions,” Williams said. “But he doesn’t deserve to sit in an Argentine prison for years because of it.”

Price: 919-829-4526

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