U.S. professor faces cocaine-smuggling charges in Argentina

Mar 20 2012 - 8:51am

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- A 68-year-old University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill physics professor with three degrees from Oxford University is being held in an Argentine prison on charges of trying to smuggle 2 kilograms of cocaine.

Paul H. Frampton, who holds the title Louis D. Rubin Jr. Distinguished Professor of Physics and Astronomy, said in a telephone interview that he was arrested Jan. 23 at the airport in Buenos Aires after the drugs were found in his checked luggage en route to Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

Frampton said he was confident that he would be exonerated and seemed less upset by the drug charges than his treatment by the university, which he said had stopped his pay for reasons of petty academic jealousy.

Frampton says the cocaine had been cleverly built into a piece of his luggage without his knowledge, but he declined to say how it might have gotten there, saying that revealing details might harm his defense.

"I am innocent," he said. "I will not be convicted. It is just that the Argentinian justice system is very slow. There is easily enough evidence that I didn't know there were drugs in the bag, and that will come out, I hope sooner rather than later."

U.S. State Department officials said Monday that they were aware of Frampton's arrest, and that officials from the consulate had visited him twice.

Frampton has written hundreds of scholarly papers and studies some of largest questions confronting mankind, including the origins and likely fate of the universe.

Right now, though, he's dodging drugged-up fellow prisoners and fighting to get his university pay restored.

Frampton said that Provost Bruce Carney had his pay improperly stopped, and that he needs the money for his defense and his bills back in Chapel Hill.

Also, the university should have sent someone who knows him and can attest to his character to talk with the judge. Instead, it sent an associate dean who doesn't know him, but happened to be coming to Argentina on business.

"The university has done nothing, absolutely nothing, to help me," he said. "You would expect a university of that caliber would do everything possible to get me out of prison."

Frampton said that he has known Carney, who also taught in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, since they joined the university about the same time more than three decades ago. Carney had long been jealous, he said, because Frampton had earned tenure much more quickly and because Carney's academic accomplishments were paltry compared to his own.

"I am one of the most published physicists, and really he hasn't done much that is of interest," Frampton said.

Carney had taken advantage of Frampton's helpless position to stop his pay and hinder any notion of the university helping him, he said.

Carney, reached by telephone, gave a short laugh.

"That's an interesting assertion," he said before referring questions on Frampton to Nancy Davis, the associate vice chancellor for university relations.

Davis confirmed that Frampton's salary had changed from $106,835 to nothing as of March 1, but said she couldn't release the reason for the change because it was a personnel matter protected under state law.

She also confirmed that the senior associate dean for Social Sciences and Global Programs, Jonathan Hartlyn, had been in Buenos Aires recently on university business and on March 5 met with a member of the Argentine judiciary.

Over the phone from the prison, Frampton read a letter that he said Carney had sent to Frampton's defense attorneys.

In the first sentence, Carney wrote he was sorry to hear of Frampton's arrest. In the next, he wrote that he was also sorry to hear that Frampton had been missing the meetings of the general relativity class he was supposed to be teaching.

Carney also wrote that after consulting with Chancellor Holden Thorp and UNC System President Tom Ross he would have to suspend Frampton's pay, as Frampton would have to take a leave of absence, given his failure to teach the class.

Frampton said the class had been cancelled before it even began because only one student had enrolled, and at least five were required.

Carney, he said, had inserted himself in the issue of salary improperly. Due process would have included the department chair, Frampton said, but the chair hadn't even known.

Frampton said he was actually working more than 40 hours a week in prison, and had already written four scholarly papers this year, including two that would be published, and that he was able to continue advising two students assigned to him.

One of the students, doctoral candidate David Eby, said that was true.

Frampton had been helping him with several peer-reviewed research papers and was helping him get into an advanced summer program for physicists.

"We've been in continuous contact by phone, particularly over the last month, and he has been doing all these things that I'd be depending on him for if he were actually here," Eby said. "I find that admirable."

Eby said he didn't know that Frampton was incarcerated until Sunday. Frampton had said he was out of the country, but hadn't discussed the circumstances.

Frampton's disappearance had been a topic of speculation around the department, said Eby, who thinks there is little question that Frampton is innocent.

"He is human, but this is so far out of his character that I think I actually laughed when I heard about it," he said.

Frampton said he was being held at Villa Devoto prison in Buenos Aires, the nation's capital. The prison was used to house political prisoners in the 1960s and 1970s and was the setting of the movie "Kiss of the Spider Woman."

Ever the scientist, Frampton said the conditions were the worst that he had ever lived in, but that he could not definitely say whether they were unusually bad.

"I have never been in prison before, so I have no way of making an accurate comparison," he said.

He is able to exercise, he said, and there were five ancient phones that prisoners could use with 10-peso calling cards. Frampton said he had been using those phones to talk with university officials, his students, attorneys and friends.

He had travelled to South America on a personal trip to meet someone, he said, and Buenos Aires had only been a waypoint en route home. He declined to say what other countries he might have been in .

The 8:45 a.m. return flight was supposed to take him through Lima, Miami, then to RDU, he said. After he boarded the plane, though, he was escorted off and taken to a luggage area.

A sophisticated scanner designed to detect differences in the density of material had noted something odd about one of his bags. Argentine officials cut the bag open in front of him, then tested the powder and found it to be cocaine.

After his arrest, Frampton said, he was held incommunicado about three days before he was allowed to call his department chairman and tell him what had happened.

A friend who teaches at Princeton alerted academics in Buenos Aires, who have rallied to help him, Frampton said. They arranged an offer of a university job there, which his lawyers think could win his release while he waits for trial. If allowed to leave prison, he would have to agree not to leave the country and wouldn't get his passport back.

The U.S. Embassy has looked into the case, but it can only make sure he's being treated properly and has an adequate defense team. It can't take sides in the case, Frampton said.

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