Here’s how much a UNC professor made while locked up in Argentina

Paul Frampton, seen at left in a photo from helppaulframpton.org and, at right, a photo of him in jail in Argentina.
Paul Frampton, seen at left in a photo from helppaulframpton.org and, at right, a photo of him in jail in Argentina.

After being lured to South America by Internet scammers using photos of a buxom bikini model, and then landing in an Argentinian jail on drug-related charges, a UNC-Chapel Hill physics professor said he was able to teach and advise his students while incarcerated.

Paul Frampton, the 72-year-old who said he was unwittingly coaxed into carrying luggage containing cocaine, has been awarded more than $263,000 for back pay and benefits from UNC after administrators tried to cut him off from compensation shortly after his arrest.

The courts have ruled that UNC violated its own policies when administrators placed Frampton on unpaid leave while he awaited trial on drug-trafficking charges inside the notorious Villa Devoto jail in Buenos Aires. In August 2016, a judge in Orange County ordered UNC to pay $231,475.92 in back salary and $31,824.53 for loss of benefits to Frampton, but refused to order the state to pay the professor’s attorney’s fees.

Frampton appealed to the state Court of Appeals for the money for his lawyer, Barry Nakell, who is based in Chapel Hill. But in a unanimous ruling issued on Tuesday, a three-judge panel denied that request.

Nakell plans to seek further review from the state Supreme Court, acknowledging that it is a long shot because the appellate judges were unanimous in their decision.

Frampton, who was able to leave Argentina after serving half his 56-month sentence, has relocated to England, where he was born and raised. Efforts to reach him by email on Tuesday were unsuccessful.

It has been several years since the former Louis D. Rubin Jr. Distinguished Professor of Physics and Astronomy at UNC was profiled in international tabloids – portrayed as a superstar particle phenomenologist with three Oxford University degrees who became an accused smuggler.

The case, from the professor’s claims of being duped by an Internet scammer he thought was the former Miss Bikini World to his contentions of teaching from prison to his firing several years after his arrest, has been described as unusual at most every step.

Frampton said he was duped into carrying the otherwise empty suitcase after flying to South America for what he thought would be a meeting with Denise Milani, an internationally known bikini model who he thought he had met on an Internet dating site. He said that after arriving he never actually saw the woman, and was instead asked by a man who presented himself as an intermediary to transport the suitcase.

At trial in 2012, 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 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 2012 telephone interview that he had written the note and made the quick calculations after the drugs were found. He claimed he was waiting for the police to finish their work when he began wondering about the value of the cocaine. The emails and texts, he said, were jokes made when he was sleep deprived.

As his case played out in Argentina, Frampton quickly became a thorn in the side of the UNC administration. Not only were there articles about him in high-profile publications such as The New York Times Magazine, British tabloids and a physics news site, but he also became something of a test case for tenure protection.

Typically, personal leave is something an employee has to request. But Frampton received a letter in prison from the UNC provost at the time, informing the professor that his pay was being cut off on the notion that he would be unable to carry out his duties from a prison in Argentina.

Chancellor Carol Folt fired Frampton in May 2014 for misconduct and neglect of duty, according to a letter to Frampton that was sent in care of his Chapel Hill attorney.

But before that, university officials put him on unpaid leave from his $106,835 post, contending that his imprisonment abroad had made it impossible for him to carry out the duties of his job. 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 the 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 to fire tenured faculty.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1