- EphBlog - http://ephblog.com -

Infernal Machine

More on the Cole Field Three.

Three freshmen at Williams College out to shock the school face felony charges for reportedly attempting to detonate a homemade bomb on campus less than a day before the massacre at Virginia Tech.

A dean at the prestigious western Massachusetts college alerted parents yesterday in an e-mail lamenting the bomb scare. Police said if the explosive device had worked early Sunday, the campus would have been rocked.

“At this particularly sensitive time, I thought I’d take the risk of over-reporting,” Dean Nancy Roseman wrote in a stern e-mail obtained by the Herald. “We all long for the time when such things don’t jangle our nerves quite so much,” she added in the missive sent home to parents. Williamstown police Sgt. Scott McGowen told the Herald the three 19-year-old males each face charges of possession of an infernal machine – a felony – and disorderly conduct. The names of the three students will not be made public until Monday, McGowen added.

Police were called at 12:42 a.m. Sunday to a practice field at the bucolic campus, where they spotted the explosive device, McGowen said. “They failed to detonate it, thankfully,” McGowen said, adding that if the bomb had gone off it would have resulted in a loud explosion but probably no injuries. An investigation assisted by state police and FBI led to the charges against the three freshmen, who face “sanctions” from the college, the dean said.

Comments:

1) The Herald has a copy of the e-mail and we don’t?! Could a parent reader please post it in the comments? UPDATE: See comments. Thanks!

2) The intent of the students was to “shock the school.” Interesting. Our previous discussion assumed that this was more of a (drunked?) lark than an attempt to create discussion on campus. Note the difference between this description and the previous claim that their “intent was not to cause damage or injury but to pursue their curiosity about such a device.”

3) Doesn’t this raise a whole host of interesting legal questions? I think so! Assume that the students (or at least one of them) had some sort of political intent. They wanted to “shock the school.” (I am not sure how, but leave that to one side.) Isn’t political speech protected? Even speech involving fire? If the students had decided, instead, to burn an American flag (or a copy of Mein Kampf or whatever) then there would be no punishment from the police or the college. Now, obviously, if you burn a flag in a dangerous fashion (in the middle of a crowd), then you may be liable for endangerment. But it seems (?) like the students took every (most?) reasonable safety precautions. Lawyer opinions sought!

4) We need someone to provide some relevant Massachusetts case law on infernal machines. If the Williams Rocket Club can launch from Cole Field (presumably without checking with the Williamstown police) then why can’t these students set off a bomb? (The College might still have grounds to act against them and not the rocket club since the latter (I assume) seeks permission.

Berkshire Eagle
coverage below.)

Three 19-year-old Williams College students are facing felony charges after being connected to an explosive device found on Cole Field by campus security early Sunday morning, local police announced yesterday.

Williamstown Police officials are not identifying the three suspects because they have not yet been formally charged, although charges of possession of an infernal machine, a felony, and disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor, are expected to be filed against the trio by Monday, said Detective Sgt. Scott McGowan.

“Without a doubt, at no time was any student, anyone associated with the college, or any town resident in danger,” he said. “All evidence points to a prank, not domestic terrorism.”

McGowan said all three suspects have been cooperating throughout the investigation.

“Our evidence shows they were trying to pull a prank without giving any thought to what the consequences could be,” he said. “I don’t believe they understood the overall danger, not having been trained to handle these materials. I do believe they are very well aware of just how serious the situation could have been now.”

McGowan described the device as a
Advertisement
“powerful explosive.” He declined to reveal the nature of the device or of where the students learned how to assemble it. He did say they purchased the materials at a local store, which enabled investigators to identify one of the suspects, with the assistance of the FBI. Through further investigation of the first suspect, police identified the other two.

McGowan said campus security notified police of a suspicious device at the field at about 12:52 a.m. Sunday. Police and campus security approached the device, quickly determined it was not a danger, and police brought it to the station for further examination.

A press statement from Williamstown Police Chief Kyle J. Johnson noted that the device “had been ignited, but failed to burn.”

The statement also said that the “intent was not to cause damage, but to pursue their curiosity about such a device.”

McGowan noted that if the device had detonated, there were no buildings or other college structures close enough to have been damaged.

The possession of an infernal machine charge carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in state prison. The misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail and/or a $1,000 fine. There is no minimum penalty limit for either charge, McGowan said.

James Kolesar, spokesman for Williams College, said that school officials are investigating the incident, and that any possible sanctions of the students would remain confidential. Sanctions could range from a verbal warning to expulsion. He also noted that a 19-year-old student is typically a freshman.

Facebooktwitter
Comments Disabled (Open | Close)

Comments Disabled To "Infernal Machine"

#1 Comment By David Kane On April 23, 2007 @ 10:48 am

A parent kindly sent in a copy of the e-mail.

Subject: Report on a Williams Incident

Dear Williams Parents,

At this particularly sensitive time, I thought I’d take the risk of over-reporting by sending you this release from the Williamstown Police Department. I think it describes the situation well. The College’s investigation continues. Meanwhile, we all long for the time when such things don’t jangle our nerves quite so much.

Regards,
Nancy Roseman
Dean of the College

The release is the same as the one sent to students/faculty/staff. The e-mail to parents went out 26 minutes after the campus one. The wording is slightly changed. Post-modernist readers are invited to explicate the difference.

#2 Comment By hwc On April 23, 2007 @ 11:03 am

A prior EphBlog thread on college bomb making gone awry.

#3 Comment By npm On April 23, 2007 @ 11:38 am

In December 1988, Williams freshman Samir Gafsi died fooling around with pipe bombs:

AP890102-0100 AP-NR-01-02-89 1644EST r a AM-GarageExplosion 01-02 0377 AM-Garage Explosion,0387 Police: Bomb That Killed Four May Have Been Prank BETHESDA, Md. (AP) Four teen-agers who died in an accidental pipe-bomb explosion apparently were building the powerful device for fun, not for political or criminal reasons, according to reports published Monday. “They were all bright kids. … Everything points to kids looking at this as a challenge, like something they saw on TV and said, `Hey, I can do that,”’ an unidentified police official told The (Baltimore) Sun. Another police source, also unidentified, told The Washington Post the youths may have been planning a prank, “like blowing up a flagpole or something.” Dov Fischman, 18, and Samir Gafsi, 17, honor students who graduated last year from Bethesda’s Walt Whitman High School, were killed instantly Saturday when the bomb detonated, apparently as they were assembling it, police said. Two other youths, Bruno Perrone, 18, a freshman studying chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley, and Gustavo Machado, 15, a sophomore at Walt Whitman, died later at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda. Diego Soromenho-Ramos, a Walt Whitman classmate of the older youths, said his friends were fascinated with chemistry. “They were probably going to go to some field and see how big a hole they could make,” he said. “They were peaceful people. They would never try to hurt anybody.” The explosion occurred about 3:10 a.m. in a garage attached to a brick home rented by Machado’s parents. Because Gafsi and Fischman were killed instantly, investigators believe they were standing over the pipe bomb when it exploded, Montgomery County Police spokesman Harry E. Geehreng said. Laboratory tests on metal and debris collected at the site by agents from the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms weren’t expected to yield any results until later this week, investigators said. Gafsi, a National Merit Scholar, was a freshman at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., where his studies included Japanese and classical Arabic. Fischman, a first-year honors program student at the University of Maryland, planned to major in chemistry and math. He had won prizes for his work in both subjects in high school, his family said. According to Gafsi’s father, Salem Gafsi, Fischman’s interests also included explosives, “but in the positive sense. He’s a gifted kid.”

#4 Comment By Anonymous On April 23, 2007 @ 12:24 pm

Williams taught classical Arabic in 1988? That surprises me unless it was being taught in the “critical languages” program.

#5 Comment By frank uible On April 23, 2007 @ 12:34 pm

It now appears that the “bomb” was a lot closer to a bona fide bomb than to a firecracker and that the perps knew it. If true, this fact changes perspective on this jackpot.

#6 Comment By hwc On April 23, 2007 @ 12:54 pm

Isn’t political speech protected? Even speech involving fire? If the students had decided, instead, to burn an American flag (or a copy of Mein Kampf or whatever) then there would be no punishment from the police or the college. Now, obviously, if you burn a flag in a dangerous fashion (in the middle of a crowd), then you may be liable for endangerment. But it seems (?) like the students took every (most?) reasonable safety precautions. Lawyer opinions sought!

David,

Did I just read this correctly? You are arguing that making and exploding bombs is constitutionally protected free speech?

#7 Comment By anonymous 92 On April 23, 2007 @ 12:57 pm

I had heard exactly the opposite – that the experiment was designed to create a fireworks event, not an explosive event. I don’t know if the town has a choice within the State Code to differentiate between an amateur fireworks attempt, and a truly dangerous explosive device when they charge the students with the Infernal Machine count. We can all agree that igniting an array of roman candles can be dangerous, but few would be truly upset if they were set off on Cole Field. It will be interesting to see if the federal authorities take an interest in the case. If they don’t, perhaps we should all take a breath and wait for more information.

#8 Comment By Joe On April 23, 2007 @ 1:03 pm

As for the free speech aspect of it, the grounds to protect the expression are shaky at best, incoherent at worst. Pure political speech is given the most stringent protection because it is nothing but contribution to the marketplace of ideas. With each additional expressive aspect to the speech, however, the risk of a “clear and present danger” becomes more acute. While you’re right to bring up the example of flag burning being constitutionally protected speech, there are two caveats: 1) the expressive content there is obious – disagreement with the policies of the USA, and 2) it has to be done in such a way as to not violate “content neutral” time/place/manner restrictions on expression, or other neutral laws of general applicability. Burning a flag on Chapin Beach might be one thing, because the steps aren’t going to catch on fire. But since we’re not sure they were actually trying to communicate anything, and since they were pretty clearly doing it in a dangerous manner, they can’t drape themselves in the First Amendment.

#9 Comment By 04 On April 23, 2007 @ 3:48 pm

hahahahaha yes. therefore all terrorist acts are protected by free speech if they are indeed terrorist acts, done for a cause, and not just college freshmen pulling a prank.

david, i think you’re taking this “they were trying to shock the campus” a bit too far. what makes you think they were trying to start discussion?? it seems they just wanted to cause a scare. it’s a dumb prank.

We need someone to provide some relevant Massachusetts case law on infernal machines. If the Williams Rocket Club can launch from Cole Field (presumably without checking with the Williamstown police) then why can’t these students set off a bomb? hahahahaha yes. therefore all terrorist acts are protected by free speech if they are indeed terrorist acts, done for a cause, and not just college freshmen pulling a prank.

david, i think you’re taking this “they were trying to shock the campus” a bit too far. what makes you think they were trying to start discussion?? it seems they just wanted to cause a scare. it’s a dumb prank.

We need someone to provide some relevant Massachusetts case law on infernal machines. If the Williams Rocket Club can launch from Cole Field (presumably without checking with the Williamstown police) then why can’t these students set off a bomb? <-- HILARIOUS.

#10 Comment By Chotch On April 23, 2007 @ 4:08 pm

If they bought the supplies at a local store, that leads to the question of where they made it. While they did not attempt to detonate it near buildings or people, if they made it in a dorm or school building then other people and property were at risk.

#11 Comment By frank uible On April 23, 2007 @ 4:12 pm

Setting off bombs is not protected speech – with or without political purpose. Period. End of discussion.

#12 Comment By Anonymous On April 23, 2007 @ 4:19 pm

“the Cole Field “….lol. Not to be mistaken with the Texas Seven. Too funny.

#13 Comment By The Dude On April 23, 2007 @ 4:43 pm

I think you mean “The Seattle Seven,” which was, of course, “me and six other guys.”

after that, though, my career slowed down a little…

#14 Comment By Anonymous On April 23, 2007 @ 7:56 pm

As Joe explained, there is no constitutional protection for disorderly conduct, so long as the law prohibiting it is neutrally applied.

For example, it is forbidden to detonate all explosive devices in public. The law makes no distinction between bombs targeting Democrats and bombs targeting Republicans. In other words, the law does not prohibit detonation of some bombs but allow detonation of other bombs of a different bent. As long as the content of the message is not a factor, it can be banned.

A better example, burning a flag on Chapin Beach is illegal because burning anything on Chapin Beach is probably illegal, whether it is a flag, a bra, or a pile of trash. So long as the law does not allow some flags to be burned but not others, it is neutrally applied and therefore constitutional.

See J. Murphy writing for a unanimous court in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942).

#15 Comment By Mike E. ’04 On April 24, 2007 @ 5:16 am

I don’t believe the college has included a formal Arabic program outside of the courses available through the Critical Languages program until very recently. When lobbying the faculty and college for a full-time Arabic professor I spoke with Jane Canova of the Critical languages program about any previous support Williams might have given to the idea of such a program — the records were slim and apparently didn’t include anything substantial.

#16 Comment By RyPay On April 24, 2007 @ 3:12 pm

There are alot of questions running through my head regarding this incident.

Do we know who the 3 students are at this time? I know that the police department hadn’t released their identities yet but I am sure most of campus knows the culprits.

What is their background, ethnicity, religious views, etc..? If the 3 males(educated guess) are not priviledged white males, I am sure that the town and college will react differently once all the info is released by the police and they are formally charged.

If any/all of the students turn out to be Muslim, I think the town, school, police dept, etc… may over react.

Who’s to say that this wasn’t just a practice run for something bigger?

This is a prank in all likelihood but what if it wasn’t? What if they really do have malicious intent?

I used to get a kick out of “blowing sh*t up” but I outgrew that by the time I reached high school. The fact that 19 year old Williams students, who are supposed to be bright, would attempt to do this and not think that they may be expelled or arrested boggles the mind.

#17 Comment By ephmom On April 24, 2007 @ 5:52 pm

“Do we know who the 3 students are at this time? I know that the police department hadn’t released their identities yet”

Their names may never be released, if they have Very Good Lawyers. (And again, Williams isn’t Duke.)

#18 Comment By Anonymous On April 24, 2007 @ 6:33 pm

Eh, I’m pretty sure if they’re being formally charged it’d be impossible for the names to never come out. I may be wrong though.

#19 Comment By Euclid On May 4, 2007 @ 12:29 pm

+++++++Who’s to say that this wasn’t just a practice run for something bigger?+++++

Who is to say that it WAS?? Many inferences can be drawn here. Best to hear all the facts prior to building the gallows.

+++++++This is a prank in all likelihood but what if it wasn’t? What if they really do have malicious intent?++++++++++

Neither police nor press are releasing details of the makeup of this device. Thus the knowledgeable public is not allowed to draw any conclusions as to its efficacy in its purported capacity as an “infernal machine” — which, BTW, was the designation given to those flashing magnetic signs recently seen round about metro Beantown and in other cities, and about which the hysterical to do bore strong resemblance to El Jeffe Johnson’s (over?)reaction in this instance.

It might also be wondered if this “gang of three” were merely investigating some chemistry. Seems like the Nobel family, of the Peace Prize fame, did some of that without being prosecuted — or persecuted, except by the French who probably wished they had made Nobel’s discoveries for the glory of France.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_Nobel

One might hope that whatever the outcome, the three will have learned well from that harsh teacher, Experience, who inevitably first administers the test.