Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Gag Order Denied In World's Tiniest Media Circus

Ronald Swerlein's defense attorney, Jeffrey Larson [left in photo] asked for a publication ban on Friday, in order to protect his client from what he called a "media circus". It's a circus in a teapot if ever there was one, as a Google News search for "Ronald Swerlein" turns up only 65 matches.

According to Victoria Camron in the Longmont Daily Times-Call,
[Defense attorney Jeffrey] Larson argued that police have released too much information in the case against Ronald Swerlein.

“The focus is primarily on the law enforcement agency, the Longmont Police Department,” Larson said.
Larson even went so far as to assert that such a ban could benefit the prosecution. But the prosecution was having none of it, saying if they wanted a gag order, they could ask for it themselves. County Judge John Stavely ruled that the court would not impose any gag order or sanctions on the proceedings.

Swerlein must find it comforting to be represented by a defense attorney who doesn't mind saying that what he wants may help the prosecution. Nonetheless, if my reading of the media coverage of the case is correct, Mr. Larson is right. The local media continues to focus on "primarily on the law enforcement agency", as all the latest reports attest.

In the only other recently-published articles, the Longmont Daily Times-Call talks about lingering feelings of insecurity among Swerlein's neighbors, and the Boulder Daily Camera tells how police came to Swerlein's home last November, during which visit Swerlein denied everything.

The Daily Camera piece, by Vanessa Miller, summarizes the previous events in this case as follows:
During the June 15 search, bomb squads, state technicians and local police closed streets and evacuated neighborhood homes so they could force Swerlein and his wife from their house with tear gas. After two multi-day searches, officers collected nearly 1,000 items including explosive compounds, guns, grenades and a "warning note."

Swerlein was charged last week with 10 felony counts of possession of an explosive or incendiary device and a misdemeanor drug charge.

Police still have seven investigators working on the case, including Swerlein's possible motivations, said police Sgt. Tim Lewis.

Swerlein has told investigators that he's a "nerd" teaching himself about rocket-fuel technology. His attorney said he had no intention of harming anyone.
Despite the fact that Swerlein's story fits what we know about the evidence perfectly, the police continue to search for alternate explanations, as the Times-Call reports:
While police continue to comb through more than 1,000 pieces of evidence in the case, investigators aren’t any closer to knowing why Swerlein might hoard and experiment with dangerous chemicals and explosives, [Sgt. Tim] Lewis said.

“We’re looking at the whys,” he said.
Coincidentally -- or not -- the local media coverage (which has been, with a few very rare exceptions, the only coverage) has portrayed Swerlein's story as implausible, with variations on this theme:
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.
Mr. Musselman seems to represent the "tamer" side of model rocketry, where people build rockets from kits. On the other side of the coin, there are folks who design and build their own rockets, and/or design and mix their own rocket fuels. So he's only telling one side of a multi-faceted story.

And it's a story rife with misunderstanding. For instance, people normally think of nitroglycerin as a very sensitive explosive and certainly nobody would want to fly a rocket using pure nitroglycerin as fuel. But as a fuel additive it makes sense in a number of ways. Fancy that!

Here's another example: ammonium nitrate is one of the world's cheapest fertilizers but if mixed with certain additives (such as diesel fuel) it can be explosive, and it was implicated in the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995. But it's also used as rocket fuel -- and this Yahoo newsgroup is using it in an attempt to design a non-toxic solid fuel (which would make model rocketry safer for kids).

Thermite, another of the chemicals found in Swerlein's possession, is potentially explosive but is used in the fuel for the Space Shuttle.

PETN and sodium azide are dangerous and are not typically used in rocketry but there is no theoretical reason why they couldn't be. Plenty of other chemicals used in rocket fuel are dangerous but that doesn't disqualify them from consideration. Sodium azide in particular is intriguing because it produces a large quantity of gas quickly when it comes in contact with metal. For this reason it is widely used in airbags. Anything that produces a lot of gas quickly is at least worthy of consideration as a rocket fuel ingredient -- maybe not for the kids but certainly for the more experimentally inclined -- like these guys, maybe.

So it appears that some BS has been slung by the local press, aided perhaps by the police department. Does that make Swerlein innocent? I don't think so. If he was setting off small explosions in his garage in the middle of the night, then he was certainly causing a public nuisance, if nothing else. His neighborhood was probably not zoned to allow for rocket-fuel testing. And it appears he may have manufactured and/or owned restricted chemicals without the proper permits.

But is he a terrorist? It doesn't look that way, for several reasons. He ordered his equipment and supplies from internet vendors and had them delivered by UPS. If somebody were hiding something he wouldn't do that. Second, he kept tinkering in his garage even after he had made a half a pound of nitroglycerin. If he were trying to hurt somebody, he would have had no need to keep tinkering. According to police, he had never expressed any animosity toward any individual or group. He hadn't, in their terms, chosen a target. And he wouldn't be out on bail if he were deemed to be dangerous. (Or would he?)

On the other hand, he does appear to have been somewhat dangerous -- if only to himself. Police who searched his home said "it appeared there was bomb shrapnel embedded in a wall."

If I were a betting man I'd say Ronald Swerlein used to do his chemistry experiments in a bedroom until one day something exploded, after which his wife made him move his lab to the garage. Can you imagine?

Meanwhile the contradictions never end, even when given opportunities to do so. Police detonated what they said was half a pound of homemade nitroglycerin in Swerlein's driveway, yet Sgt. Tim Lewis reportedly told the press Swerlein had not created enough chemical explosives “for a terrorist action.”

According to a reliable source, half a pound of nitroglycerin could make a pretty fair car bomb, or take a chunk out of a building. Certainly it would make a better car bomb than we saw in London last week, none of which appear to have had any explosives at all.

At any rate, it seemed strange that a police officer running an investigation of this type would say such a thing, and on the other hand it seemed possible that he may have been misquoted. So your humble blogger asked the Longmont Police Department whether Sgt. Lewis cared to clarify his position on this point. Sgt. Lewis declined to comment on the matter.

Speaking of contradictions, Matin Siraj is currently serving 30 years in prison after being convicted of plotting to bomb the Herald Square subway station. Siraj never had any explosives, or any knowledge of explosives, or any contact with anyone who could get explosives for him. The jury heard evidence indicating that he was entrapped by an agent of the FBI, who was paid more than $100,000 for his efforts, but they convicted him anyway. And after his sentencing, when his parents started talking about entrapment, they were all arrested. The sister and the mother are out on bail, but after almost six months the father is still incarcerated without charge or hearing, much less a trial.

Meanwhile Ronald Swerlein, who made nitroglycerin in a residential neighborhood and is charged with ten felony counts of possession of explosives, is free on bail.

Swerlein is due in court again on July 12th, and I will continue to follow the story, even (or especially) if nobody else outside of Colorado does so.

[recent links]

Longmont Daily Times-Call
Gag order denied
Swerlein neighbors still worried about security

Boulder Daily Camera
Police at Ronald Swerlein's home in 2006

Rocky Mountain News
Tipsters sent cops to Longmont bomb suspect's home in November