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Argentine court convicts UNC-CH physics professor of drug smuggling

UNC-CH physicist jailed for drug smuggling

CHAPEL HILL The 68-year-old UNC-Chapel Hill physics professor arrested in Argentina early this year after being caught with more than 4 pounds of cocaine hidden in a suitcase has been convicted by an Argentine court.

Paul Frampton, the Oxford-educated Louis D. Rubin Jr. Distinguished Professor of Physics and Astronomy, told investigators he was duped into unknowingly carrying the drugs after being lured first to Bolivia with a promise of meeting a famous bikini model.

He was sentenced to four years and eight months of confinement Monday afternoon after three days of hearings. He expects to serve his sentence under house arrest at a friend’s apartment in Buenos Aires.

“As you might imagine I am in a state of shock and disbelief,” Frampton said in a telephone interview Wednesday night. “This is a gross miscarriage of justice. If this had happened in the United States, a jury would have obviously acquitted me.”

A prosecutor presented the court with calculations of the drug’s value in Frampton’s handwriting, and with texts and emails ostensibly to the model, Miss Bikini World 2007 Denise Milani, sent the day before his arrest.

According to the Buenos Aires newspaper Clarin, the messages to Milani, 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.’

The handwritten note said ‘1grm/200U$S. 2000grms/400000 U$S.’

Frampton said Wednesday that he had written the note after the drugs were found while sitting in a room at the airport waiting for the police to finish their work.

He said that when they found and weighed the drugs, he was shocked, and, being a numbers man, idly began wondering what they were worth and did a quick calculation.

Two police officers, he said, testified during the trial that they didn’t remember whether he wrote anything after the drugs were found, and two said he had not.

Frampton said that after 10 months, they surely wouldn’t remember such a detail.

Worried about being fired

As to the emails and texts, he said he was sleep deprived and was trying to be humorous.

“It’s just not logical that if I were actually smuggling drugs, I would write things like that, let alone do so and then not erase them,” he said.

Frampton not only had been fighting the drug smuggling charges, but also a decision by UNC-CH Provost Bruce Carney to stop paying him while he was waiting to be tried.

Last month, he said in an interview that he believed his $107,000 salary was below the norm for professors doing similar work and that actually he should get a raise.

Now he says he is worried that the university will fire him.

“I am trying to persuade my department chair of the truth of the matter, which is that the Argentine judicial system is so flawed and dysfunctional that being convicted here has nothing much to do with guilt,” he said.

Friends and supporters had long maintained Frampton could not knowingly be guilty of drug smuggling, and that he had never shown interest in any drugs. He was, however, unusually naïve and susceptible to the allure of young women, they said.

In prison, Frampton was diagnosed with a schizoid personality disorder that results in poor judgment in practical matters and could leave him vulnerable to being easily duped.

His supporters have said that’s why it was so easy for drug smugglers to set up the bogus Internet romance and persuade him to carry the drugs.

Frampton said he never actually met Milani, and now believes she knew nothing about the scheme.

Frampton maintains that a middle-aged man met him when he flew into Bolivia. He said the man presented himself as an intermediary for Milani, and gave him the suitcase to carry to Milani in Buenos Aires. There, he was told instead to meet her in Belgium. Instead, after waiting 36 hours in the main Buenos Aires airport for an electronic ticket to Brussels, he decided to fly back to North Carolina, but police found the drugs after he checked the bag.

Frampton said Wednesday that he expects to get credit for the time he has served since his arrest in January, and that for various technical reasons he didn’t expect to be confined more than 18 months.

His lawyers are trying to get even that reduced and also are trying to get permission for him to teach at a local university while serving out the sentence.

That almost certainly be under house arrest, as judges ordered him moved from a notorious prison because heavy cigarette smoke there from other prisoners aggravated his chronic bronchitis.

He said that it’s unclear yet whether he will appeal the decision.

Still on unpaid leave

He also was unsure whether, if he is fired from UNC, he would continue to seek his pay for this year on the grounds that it was improperly held.

This summer, more than 70 academics, including dozens of UNC-CH faculty who were troubled that the university had stopping paying Frampton without using a standard disciplinary procedure, signed an open letter condemning the decision.

The provost had placed Frampton on personal leave. That form of leave, though, is traditionally requested by faculty members rather than forced on them, and Frampton and his supporters have contended that the move was a threat to tenure. It meant any professor could be de facto fired without due process, they said.

Frampton filed a lawsuit against the university earlier this year, but dropped it to pursue instead a standard university grievance procedure.

Frampton contends that he has been doing his job while incarcerated, including writing research papers and advising students by telephone and email.

A faculty grievance committee concluded this fall that it could not determine whether he was performing his duties at a suitable level, but that the university had violated its policies in stopping Frampton’s pay according to an Oct. 30 letter from Chancellor Holden Thorp to the professor.

In the letter, though – which Frampton provided to The News & Observer – Thorp rejects any notion that the university erred or that it should restore Frampton’s wages.

Thorp wrote that Frampton must stay on unpaid leave until he returns to work or his supervisors request a change in his employment status.

“As a member of the faculty and Chancellor of this institution, I have no difficulty concluding that a professor incarcerated several thousand miles from Chapel Hill is unable to perform the duties expected of a member of the faculty of this university,” Thorp wrote.

Further down he wrote: “The University must be a good steward of public funds. We would violate the public’s trust if we paid you for work that you are not performing, and I will not agree to do so.”

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