Friday, June 27, 2008

Ronald Swerlein Pleads Guilty To Three Of Ten Explosives Charges; Plea Bargain Will Likely Keep Amateur Rocket Scientist Out Of Prison

Ronald Swerlein, an amateur rocket enthusiast from Longmont, Colorado, pleaded guilty last week to three counts of illegal possession of explosives, in a deal which seems likely to keep him out of prison.

He had been charged with ten counts of possession of explosives; he pleaded not guilty to those charges last December.

He had also been charged with one count of drug possession; that charge has been dismissed.

Swelein has been free on bond since shortly after his arrest, and he remains free pending his sentencing, which is scheduled for August 8th.

If the judge accepts the agreement that has been reached between the prosecutors and Swerlein's attorney, Swerlein will face six years of probation, community service and a mental health check.

Ron Swerlein was an electrical engineer with a half a dozen patents to his name when he suffered career-ending injuries in a car accident. Unable to work, but still curious and inventive, Swerlein turned to an old hobby: chemistry. He started buying glassware and chemicals from internet suppliers, and synthesizing compounds he couldn't buy.

Swerlein could make virtually anything he wanted, apparently, including nitroglycerin.

He tested some of these compounds as potential rocket fuels, lighting small amounts of various mixtures to see how they would burn. Sometimes his fuels would burn too fast, causing a small explosion. It's not the sort of thing you normally see in a house, in a residential area, across the street from an elementary school. Some of the neighbors were concerned.

Eventually, after an unexpected explosion in the house, Swerlein moved his center of operations to his garage. There he would test potential fuels late at night, and into the wee hours -- and causing a wee explosion every now and then.

Some of his neighbors called the police, who sent a patrol car to sit and listen in the neighborhood, but the police never saw or heard any explosions, so nothing came of the neighbors' concern, initially.

Some time later, somebody else in Longmont thought it would be funny to pack some shells with gunpowder and scatter them in parking lots, where they might explode if stepped on or driven over. The police asked for help in locating any bomb-makers in the area, and once again Swerlein's neighbors mentioned the strange goings-on at his place.

This time police did a more serious investigation, which involved looking through Swerlein's garbage and culminated in a tear-gas assault on his house.

The bomb squad detonated the nitroglycerin in Swerlein's driveway, and the police took everything else that interested them. Most of the chemicals, they say, have since been destroyed.

Police have never considered Ron Swerlein a terrorist or even a potential terrorist, and his actions seem to bear out their opinion. He had made enough nitroglycerin to fuel a car-bomb, but he kept tinkering with various fuel mixtures, sometimes disturbing the peace in his sleeping neighborhood, but never hurting anybody.

A few times he even tested a fuel with a model rocket, launching it in his backyard and seeing with a thrill that it rose above his rooftop. Not a particularly severe menace to society.

The sentence Swerlein will likely receive seems fairer to me than his treatment by the police, or his treatment by the Colorado media, at least one of which printed false comments from a so-called expert who said the compounds Swelein was testing were never used in model rocketry.

Personally, I am glad to see Ron Swerlein avoid serving prison time, especially since it's so clear that he never intended to hurt anyone.

But I wonder, what if his name were Abdullah or Mohammed? What if he had brown skin, or spoke a foreign language, or read the Koran? Would he have been treated as fairly as this?

One would hope so.


eighth in a series