CHAPEL HILL — UNC-Chapel Hill has fired the 70-year-old physics professor who was arrested in 2012 after flying to Argentina to meet the woman who he thought was a former Miss Bikini World and instead was arrested by drug agents after getting entangled in a scheme to smuggle two kilos of cocaine.
Paul Frampton is soon expected to be released from prison in Argentina, where he has been confined since his arrest at the Buenos Aires airport when the drugs were found in the lining of a suitcase that he was carrying.
After his arrest, Frampton, who was the Louis D. Rubin Jr. Distinguished Professor of Physics and Astronomy at UNC, instantly was transformed from superstar particle phenomenologist with three Oxford University degrees to international tabloid fodder.
Chancellor Carol Folt fired him this month for misconduct and neglect of duty, according to a letter to Frampton in care of his Chapel Hill attorney. The letter was released to The News & Observer on Friday after a public records request.
In the letter, Folt said that then-Provost Bruce Carney informed Frampton in 2013 of his intent to fire Frampton and the professor then requested a hearing before the Faculty Hearings Committee. That committee recommended April 25 that he indeed be fired, and Folt reviewed, then accepted, its recommendations.
“I concur that you committed misconduct of such a nature as to render you unfit to serve as a member of the faculty of this University,” she wrote.
She also noted that Frampton had tried to retire after the hearings committee had finished its many months of work on the case at his request. She wrote that retirement wasn’t possible under university rules and emphasized that he was being fired.
Neither Frampton nor his local attorney, Barry Nakell of Chapel Hill, could be reached Friday. Frampton is able to make phone calls from prison but not receive them.
In November 2012, Frampton was convicted of drug smuggling charges by an Argentine court and sentenced to 4 years and 8 months in prison. Under Argentine law, he can be deported after serving half of that, and his friends are expecting him to fly back to the United States in the next few days.
In telephone interviews, Frampton said in 2012 that he had been duped over the Internet by someone claiming to be Denise Milani, a well-known bikini model. Instead of Milani, he was met by a man claiming to represent her and given what he had thought was an empty suitcase to deliver. The real Milani has never been said by investigators to have had any knowledge of the scheme or of Frampton.
A prosecutor presented the court with calculations of the drug’s value in Frampton’s handwriting and with texts and emails he apparently thought were going to Milani, sent the day before his arrest and referring repeatedly to drugs and the suitcase. According to a Buenos Aires newspaper, Clarin, the messages to the Milani imposter and to a friend in the United States included: “I’m worried about the sniffer dogs,” “I’m looking after your special little suitcase” and “In Bolivia this is worth nothing, in Europe it’s worth millions.”
Frampton said in a telephone interview in 2012 that he had written the note after the drugs were found while waiting for the police to finish their work when he began wondering what they were worth and made the quick calculations. The emails and texts, he said, were jokes made when he was sleep deprived.
As his case played out in Argentina, back on campus Frampton quickly became an enduring embarrassment for the UNC administration, thanks to articles about him in everything from the New York Times Magazine to British tabloids.
He also became something of a test case for tenure protection after he and supporters claimed that Carney had improperly stopped his pay and placed him on personal leave while he was awaiting trial.
Normally, personal leave is something the employee has to request. But Carney wrote in a letter to Frampton that he was cutting off Frampton’s pay and putting him on leave because Frampton obviously could not perform his duties.
Frampton countered that he was able to perform enough of his normal duties, including doing independent research, writing papers and advising students by phone to earn his pay.
Almost 75 academics, including several internationally known physicists and dozens of UNC faculty members, signed an open letter condemning the way his pay had been stopped.
Some said that while Frampton might be an unsympathetic figure, the university was setting a dangerous precedent that could be used as a back-door method of firing tenured faculty.
Frampton tried to get Orange County courts to reverse the university’s decision but lost.
Frampton could appeal Folt’s decision to the university’s board of trustees if he applied to do so within two weeks of being fired, but it’s unclear whether he did.