APS News

August/September 2012 (Volume 21, Number 8)

Website Seeks Aid for Physicist Jailed in Argentina

Several faculty members at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, have banded together to help physics professor Paul Frampton, who is languishing in jail in Argentina, and whose salary has been suspended by UNC.

Spearheaded by mathematics professor Mark Williams, they have set up a website, HelpPaulFrampton.org, to raise funds for his defense, post any news, and solicit character references. Boston University professor and Nobel laureate Sheldon Glashow, with whom Frampton is co-author on 13 papers, wrote one such reference.

In January, authorities arrested Frampton in Argentina after finding two kilograms of cocaine hidden in his checked luggage. Frampton claims that he had only wanted to visit someone he thought was his internet girlfriend, and that he was the victim of a plot to traffic drugs using unwitting carriers. He has been held in the notorious Villa Devoto prison in Buenos Aires since his arrest and is facing up to 16 years in prison if found guilty of drug smuggling. 

Frampton first flew to South America in expectation of meeting swimsuit model Denise Milani, a woman with whom he thought he had been having a months-long internet relationship. Instead, a man claiming to represent Milani met Frampton at his hotel and gave him a suitcase he said belonged to the model, asking Frampton to transport it to her in Brussels. After waiting a day and a half in vain for a ticket, Frampton decided to return home. He was stopped and arrested before boarding a flight to Peru when authorities found the drugs hidden in the lining of the suitcase given to him.

There is no evidence that he was ever actually in touch with Milani or that she has anything to do with the case.

Six months later, Frampton is still awaiting trial in Buenos Aires. Multiple attempts to get him released on bail have failed, and there is no word as to when his case will be brought to trial. Reportedly the judge overseeing the case is known to often deny bail.

“We just don’t know when there might be the actual trial,” said Williams. “We have no idea how to accelerate the process over there.”

As to why he decided to travel with the unfamiliar suitcase, Frampton claims that he has emotional issues that can make him overly trusting towards others. Those who know him, including his ex-wife, have said that this is a personality trait of his.

While the case in Argentina is slowly working its way through the courts, litigation is moving forward in North Carolina between Frampton and the university over his suspended salary.

On February 17, the provost, Bruce Carney, sent a letter to Frampton informing him that because of the arrest and his inability to teach a scheduled class, the university was suspending Frampton’s salary effective the 29th. Frampton asserts the class had already been canceled before he left the country because of low enrollment. In addition, his suit alleges that the university did not follow its own guidelines for levying sanctions against him, and that he was not informed of his right to a hearing before having his salary suspended.

“It appears to us the university is probably violating its own regulations in terms of how they’re handling Paul’s salary,” Williams said, pointing to Chapter VI, section 603 of the UNC Policy Manual found on the UNC website.

Frampton brought the suit against the university in May. A preliminary ruling in June by the Orange County Superior Court declined to reinstate his salary while the case is pending. Williams said that Frampton claims he will run out of money sometime in September if the school does not reinstate his salary.

According to court papers reported in the North Carolina regional newspaper the News and Observer, the university claimed to have tried to assist Frampton by locating an attorney for him, but that he would have to pay for the legal assistance. Frampton opted instead for a public defender.

UNC has declined to comment and has not issued any public statement regarding Frampton’s arrest or the lawsuit because of the ongoing litigation.

The dispute has taken a personal tone. In March, Frampton was quoted in the News and Observer as saying “I am one of the most published physicists, and really [Carney] hasn’t done much that is of interest.” He and Carney both work in the school’s department of physics and astronomy.

“He is an esteemed teacher and accomplished researcher, having published over 300 scholarly papers and several advanced scientific books,” Glashow wrote in his reference for Frampton. “I cannot imagine that Paul was aware of the illegal drugs that were secreted within his checked luggage. Professor Paul Frampton is an internationally known scholar; he is honest, but he is also naive.”

Eight other professors, including former APS President Eugen Merzbacher, have also written letters on Frampton’s behalf.

While in jail, Frampton has continued to advise his two graduate students through sporadic phone calls. He has authored two scientific papers with the help of the prison’s collaboration with the University of Buenos Aires.

The website organizers also sent a letter signed by 26 professors to the whole faculty of UNC on August 1, alerting the school to Frampton’s predicament and lawsuit. Within a day of the letter being sent out, more than two dozen people added their names to the letter in support. Several of the founders of the website have also written to the Argentinean judiciary in an attempt to expedite the case. However it is an uphill legal fight for Frampton.

“There is almost no record of success in cases like this,” Williams said. “It’s a tough thing to argue because everyone in this situation claims that they were set up,” He added that Frampton’s computer records of emails and chats with the person claiming to be Milani should show that he honestly thought he would be meeting the model at the airport.

In June, David Schwartz, an employee of UNC, attempted to visit Frampton at the prison. He was prevented from meeting Frampton face to face, but Schwartz’s brother in law, who is a lawyer in Argentina, was able to pass a message to him.

“He wanted me to know that he was ok and appreciated that I had come,” Schwartz said. Also in the letter, Frampton said that he was happy to be able to read physics papers again, but the prison stay had been taking its toll on his health. Schwartz added that even Frampton’s public defender in Argentina agreed it was a difficult case.

“It’s one thing if it’s some naive kid from the provinces saying ‘I was set up,’” Schwartz said. “It’s harder to convince a judge or jury that someone who is well respected for his intelligence can be entrapped in this way.”

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Editor: Alan Chodos

August/September 2012 (Volume 21, Number 8)

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Articles in this Issue
Sam Aronson of Brookhaven Elected APS VP
Permanent Jobs Elusive for Recent Physics PhDs
APS Honors Thirty-Nine Minority Scholars
New Federal Limits on Travel Could Decimate Some Meetings
US Students Among the Best at International Physics Competition
Website Seeks Aid for Physicist Jailed in Argentina
Learning from Lindau: A Physics Meeting Like No Other
Media Fellows Follow Varied Career Paths
Letters to the Editor
The Back Page
Members in the Media
After Finding the Higgs Boson
This Month in Physics History
The Education Corner
Inside the Beltway
APS Committee on International Freedom of Scientists
Focus on Advocacy