Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Ronald Swerlein Free On Bail; Court Date Set For Pending Explosives Charges

Ronald Swerlein is not due in court again until July 12; until then he's free on bond and can return to his home, but he's going to have to clean up the damage from the tear gas if he wants to enjoy living there.

Swerlein was arrested ten days ago at his home in Longmont, Colorado, where he has said he was testing various chemicals for possible use in rocket fuel.

Police armed with tear gas and a search warrant found and confiscated thousands of dollars worth of laboratory glassware and an estimated 400 different chemicals, including half a pound of nitroglycerin, which they detonated in Swerlein's driveway. The rest they took with them.

Swerlein has since been charged with ten counts of possession of explosives and one count of drug possession, and is now free on bail pending his next court appearance, which is scheduled for July 12 in Boulder County Court, according to the most recent reports from Longmont and Boulder.

Even seen from this distance, it's a case full of contradictions. (We've been following the story since last Wednesday, with articles Friday and Saturday as well).

Early reports from the local newspaper mentioned Swerlein's claim that he was making rocket fuel, not bombs, but seemed to discredit his story.

For instance, on June 20, Pierrette J. Shields and Rachel Carter reported in the Longmont Daily Times-Call:
Warren Musselman, a board member of the Northern Colorado Rocketry Club, said on Tuesday that the explosive chemicals police have identified from the home are not components of fuels used in model rocketry.

“Our stuff burns at a predictable rate and creates a lot of gas,” he said. “Explosives don’t burn. They detonate.”

Musselman said chemicals like PETN and sodium azide are dangerous and are simply not model rocket fuel ingredients.

“Explosives of any kind don’t have anything to do with the rocketry hobby,” he said.
So the case against Ronald Swerlein looked open and shut at that point, but -- guess what?? -- it turned out that things are a lot more complicated than Mr. Musselman would have us believe.

There's a very fine and fuzzy line between explosives and non-explosives (and some common household items are explosive under certain conditions), and there's also a very fuzzy line between garden-variety hobbyists and experimental high-performance rocket fuel researchers (who certainly do use explosives in their fuels).

My previous articles in this series can now be seen in all their naked ignorance; on the other hand these facts surely matter much more to Ronald Swerlein, since his future may hinge on whether or not a jury considers his story plausible.

Ronald Swerlein is a former electrical engineer with a number of patents to his credit. He retired after a car accident in 2004, and he says he's been spending his time and money building (and using) a fairly sophisticated chemistry set.

Unfortunately for Swerlein, he had no better place to experiment than his garage, and every now and then one of his fuel mixtures would explode. After a while the neighbors began to figure out where the sudden noises were coming from, and they complained to the police.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in Longmont, a scattering of small bombs appeared in the parking lot of a medical clinic. The miniature bombs were just shells stuffed with gunpowder, but they could have caused some damage if somebody had stepped on or driven over one, and on the first weekend of June, the police sent out a plea for information.

Less than two weeks later -- Tuesday, June 12 -- something went BOOM in the Swerlein garage, and the next day one of the neighbors called the police.

On Friday, June 15, after sifting through enough of the Swerleins' garbage to find some evidence that the man inside was potentially dangerous, police obtained a search warrant. Then they came back, surrounded the house, and asked the Swerleins to step outside. They didn't respond, and police fired seven canisters of tear gas into their home -- including one through the plate glass window in their living room -- before they changed their minds.

Taken to a local park, Ronald Swerlein was stripped and given a medical gown, so police could search his underwear! Eventually, having found no indication of violent intent, police released the Swerleins, who were free to go but not back home, where police were just beginning a series of searches and seizures that would last for five days.

Swerlein waited a while but then attempted to re-enter his home on Sunday, June 17, but the police were still in possession, and Swerlein was arrested. He was released Tueday, June 19, on $50,000 bond, and a short item appeared on the UPI wire, the only "national" coverage this story has ever received.

In fact, the UPI report was carried in a couple of American dailies (the Houston Post-Chronicle and the Washington Times) but it didn't appear anywhere else, other than the Republic of Georgia. Otherwise, there has been no national coverage, and only a few newspaper articles about this case have been published outside Colorado.

Despite the lack of national exposure, Swerlein's attorney has been complaining of what he calls a "media circus", and he has requested a publication ban in this case. The timing of his request may be a shade unfortunate for his client, not because this cold blogger has come to see Swerlein's story as entirely plausible, but -- even more importantly -- because the first detailed and sympathetic coverage of Swerlein's side of the story has finally appeared in print.

As Christine Reid reports, in the (subscription-only) Boulder Daily Camera:
Swerlein has not talked publicly about his case. His attorney, Jeffrey Larson, says people should wait until all the facts are out and not jump to conclusions.

Swerlein's statements to police reveal that he sees himself as a "nerd" who is interested in rocket-fuel technology and teaching himself how to make it in small doses in his garage.

Swerlein has graduate degrees in physics and electrical engineering. He was an engineer and scientist at Hewlett-Packard, which later became Agilent Technologies, in Loveland.

He retired in 2004 after a serious car accident that almost took his life and has since been a recluse. Swerlein said he worked long hours and fell asleep at the wheel one night, colliding head-on with another car.

He still takes pain medication for the serious leg injuries he sustained in the crash.

Police reported finding crushed-up pills in his pockets when they arrested him. Swerlein told them he snorted the prescription drugs to make them work more quickly and last longer.
So there's the drug charge.

Swerlein told police he was looking for hobbies to take up in his spare time and got interested in thermites, mixtures of aluminum powder and metal oxides used in welding. He said when they were lit, they would make a "whoosh" sound.

Sometimes he would stand 5 feet away and ignite the chemicals using a wire hooked to a battery. Sometimes he would use a lighter.

He told police that when he began experimenting about a year ago, he "lost containment" with a couple of projects.
The neighbors began to notice him about a year ago.
Swerlein told police that he dreamed of improving rocket fuel. He wanted to be able to walk into rocketry groups and contribute his knowledge.
And that explains why
Warren Musselman, a board member of the Northern Colorado Rocketry Club, said ... people in the small rocketry community don’t remember Swerlein attending any meetings or events.
He wasn't ready -- he simply had nothing to show them yet.

As for the tests in his garage,
He knew it could be "violent," so his tests were done with 3 to 5 grams of chemicals at a time. He surrounded chemicals with tires to absorb the blows.

He made the nitroglycerin and P.E.T.N. himself from chemicals he bought over the Internet. He told police he was proud of his accomplishments — including once firing a homemade rocket with homemade fuel over his house.
Swerlein even seems oblivious to what the neighbors were thinking -- and that fits the profile of a scientist to a tee!
Swerlein said his neighbors may have been angry with him because, about eight months ago, he had a laser light that may have disturbed some of them. He said he had been shining it on a tree because it looked "neat," police reported, but he stopped after realizing it was bothering people.
He didn't realize they were a lot more concerned about the loud noises -- most of which occurred between 11PM and 3AM, according to reports the police had on file. OOPS! Sorry about that!!
Swerlein admitted to police that there were explosives in his home, but he said he didn't want to use the word "explosive" because they were looking for a bomb-maker.
Ok, then. Semi-oblivious.
Police going into his home were safe, he said, as long as they didn't open the bottles.
But that didn't stop them, as Christine Reid reported that they took two small samples from each bottle and destroyed the rest.

Most of the chemicals they destroyed are not regulated; Swerlein had every right to own them. He must be very upset. But the police are not concerned about sending him back into the neighborhood. In fact they've held a public meeting to convince the other residents that everything is safe and there's no need to worry.

From the little I happen to know about the case, I tend to agree with the police that the neighbors are not likely in any danger, and not only because the police have all his chemicals (or at least the samples they haven't destroyed) as well as the weapons, ammunition and other items that were confiscated from the Swerlein house.

But also -- and this appears to be a key factor in the story -- Ronald Swerlein has never expressed any animosity toward anyone, and as police phrase it, he has not "chosen a target". In other ways he seems to fit the profile of an amateur scientist much better than the profile of a mad bomber.

In addition, he appears to have bought all his supplies openly, through internet supply stores sending UPS shipments to his house -- not the pattern a furtive bomb-maker would follow.

And clearly, if he wanted to hurt people, he had no need to keep tinkering around in his garage. The homemade nitroglycerin the police detonated in his driveway would have made a fine car-bomb, or could have taken a chunk out of a building. And that wasn't the only explosive compound the police found -- clearly he could have taken several chunks out of several buildings. But Ronald Swerlein doesn't appear to have been thinking in those terms at all.

In the canse of the bombs in the parking lot, police say they do not consider Swerlein a suspect. It's hard to imagine that stuffing gunpowder in brass shells would seem very exciting to a guy who can make his own nitroglycerin. Still, I give the police credit for not trying to hang the parking-lot bombs on Swerlein. Surely Police Sgt. Tim Lewis would love to solve both cases. But clearly he realizes that the only way to do so is to find the other guy, too.

Further details may be forthcoming -- especially if no publication ban is enforced -- and I will endeavor to keep you posted.

But at this point we're left with a seemingly endless series of unanswered questions, among them: What is Sgt. Lewis dealing with? Two bombers in one small city? Or one bomber and an amateur rocket-fuel chemist?

At the moment, my money is on the latter. But we shall see ...

[all the recent links]

Boulder Daily Camera:
Swerlein armory baffles neighbors

Longmont Daily Times-Call:
Longmont Explosives Investigation
Ex-engineer faces 10 counts for possession of explosives
'I am not sure I feel all that safe’

Rocky Mountain News:
Longmont man in court today in explosives raid

Casper (Wyoming) Star Tribune:
Bombmaker free on bail

KKTV News (Colorado Springs / Pueblo):
Longmont Man Charged Over Explosives

CBS4 (Denver):
Longmont Man Charged With Possessing Explosives

FOX-31 (Colorado):
Longmont Man Charged With Possessing Illegal Explosives

KJCT (Grand Junction / Montrose):
Longmont man charged with possessing illegal explosives

9 NEWS (Colorado):
Man charged after explosives pulled out of home