British scientist sentenced in Argentina after falling into drug smuggling by honey trap
Currently confined to a two bedroom flat in a Buenos Aires city neighbourhood, just a few blocks away from the National Congress building, is Professor Paul Frampton, 69, from Kidderminster, who was recently sentenced in Argentina to four years and eight month imprisonment on drugs smuggling charges.
Every morning he gets up around seven thirty and showers, dresses and has breakfast, some days with his friend, Richard, who he has known since they were at Oxford University together, exactly fifty years ago. A photograph of them, along with other fellow Oxford students, has hung in the flat for many years and today is proudly shown to visitors, who they ask to spot which students are them.
In the evenings, the pair goes up on to the roof for some fresh air in Buenos Aires’ balmy summer heat and reminisce about days gone by. Richard moved to Argentina after graduating, and has turned in to a Good Samaritan and allowed Frampton to live with him and his family under house arrest.
After a frugal breakfast, Frampton goes back to his room, in his two bedroom jail, where he has his lifeline, a computer with internet access, which he uses to keep in touch with his friends and colleagues scattered around the globe and work. The view out of his bedroom window is a wall of the art deco apartment building, built in the 1920s. If he leans out of the window, he can see the top of neighbouring buildings.
Going on the view, he could be in jail, but he is much more comfortable with his friend and family than in prison. Here he gets some home comforts, emotional support, and can concentrate on his first love: Physics. From time to time Argentine physics colleagues and friends visit. Although he can only go out in the open air on the building rooftop, this is a million times better than jail.
“I am confined to the flat, and my friends’ family has adopted me as a family member. We all meet for a late dinner around 10pm and chat. They are my support group,” Frampton says, speaking for the first time since his conviction, about his last eleven months in Argentina.
“I try and go up on the top of the building every day for some fresh air and do my exercises, forty push ups and forty box squats and I also try and walk up and down the stairs to keep fit. A hundred steps each way.”
Two days after his arrest in January this year, Frampton was locked up at Villa Devoto Prison, in Buenos Aires city, where he spent 280 days in the ‘pabellón de extranjeros’ , foreigners pavilion, home to eighty men, mainly from Spain, Colombia, the Dominican Republic and a couple of North Americans. A large room, with two rows of twenty bunk beds down each side and at the end were a kitchen and bathroom. The men were cordial to one another; there were some fights from time to time and they were organised into small ‘ranchos’, groups for cooking meals. They were given groceries and cooked for themselves. A couple of times a week they were allowed out on to a small court yard to walk around or play football.
“Experiencing prison was very dehumanising. It was like being an animal in a zoo, in a cage, after all we were in a locked room, which we couldn’t leave except under special circumstances to see a doctor or go to court. And when you do leave to be transported somewhere you are strip searched, you have handcuffs on, sometimes in the vans you have shackles on, although, often because of my age I didn’t. The guards have the upper hand and if they shout ‘stay by the wall’, ‘keep still’, ‘move’ you have to comply. You had to walk with your hands behind your back and head bowed down. It was very dehumanising.
“It was a very odd experience, even after 40 weeks, it has an air of surreality, to wake up and realise where you were and you couldn’t just go out and walk around. The lack of liberty was just unbelievable. I think most people in there spent a lot of time thinking about how they are going to get liberty sooner or later.”
“The thing that kept me going was creativity; this was key. New physics ideas kept my mind going. It is very easy to lose confidence in jail as it is so dehumanising being treated like an animal. On week days I went to the small university centre in the prison and work on physics, this definitely helped me maintain my sanity.”
Being imprisoned did not affect his productivity. Whilst in prison he wrote three new physics papers, and also updated a further four.
“This is what I usually produce in a year and my goal is to do the same for 2013.”
“I currently have ideas for eight research projects distributed between particle phenomenology and theoretical cosmology.”
“And I am going to learn Spanish,” he adds.
On the outside, Frampton appears to be holding up pretty well. But, beneath the stiff, British upper lip, he is a man in turmoil, whose life changed because of scammers, his own naiveté and the often rigid, unjust Argentine justice system.
“I am still in a state of shock. I cannot believe I was convicted, I am a convicted felon. I am an innocent man, a physics professor. I am a scam victim. My only crime was being lonely,” he told me.
“I am angry, I am so angry, I don’t know what with, with something. With myself, with what has happened, with the system, I feel so bad,” Frampton said.
He still has a lingering cough and coughed throughout our meeting. The reason he was granted house arrest was because of his chronic lung problems, aggravated by sharing a room in jail with 79 other men, of which about 60 were chain smokers, which didn’t help his lung condition. And he suffers the usual ailments men of his age do.
In November 2011 Frampton started an online relationship - or so he thought - on dating website mate1.com with Denise Milani, a former Miss Bikini World. He was smitten at the first megabyte of online chat and after eleven weeks, agreed to meet her in Bolivia.
Little did the distinguished, particle physicist, know that he was really chatting with people, who wanted to use his extreme naïveté, and in La Paz, they intended to give him a bag containing drugs, which they hoped he would transport to Europe. They told him, the girl of his dreams, had left the country as he had arrived later than expected and she had gone to a modelling job in Brussels and was waiting for him to join her there.
After embarking on the journey from La Paz, Bolivia, to Brussels, via Buenos Aires, Frampton was arrested at Ezeiza International airport, minutes before boarding a plane back home to North Carolina, USA, having given up hope of meeting his girlfriend, as a ticket failed to materialise. Four pounds of cocaine were discovered in a false bottom of the suitcase he had checked in, which allegedly belonged to his friend and he had been given to take to her in La Paz.
This fateful January day, over ten months ago, was only just the beginning of the nightmare. Earlier this month Frampton was sentenced to four years and eight months imprisonment for drugs smuggling, by a three person tribunal, in a hearing which lasted twelve hours over a three day period. The judges decided his fate during an hour long lunch break.
The state prosecution built their case on a handful of text messages which they said meant Frampton was intending to go off with the drugs and the girl.
These messages were sent, by Frampton when he was bored and tired, having been waiting for an airline ticket to meet his online friend in Brussels for nearly a day and having made his mind up to go home to fulfil his duties at the University of North Carolina and teach.
Twenty seven, unilateral text messages, a handful of which alluded to drugs, intended as a joke for his girl, have changed his life.
“I wanted to string her along and sent a series of text messages, some of which referred to ‘sniffer dogs’ and ‘coca’, and said ‘this stuff is worth millions’”.
“These messages were not profound; they were purely to amuse her. I had the bright idea, which I now regret, of mentioning drugs. I thought about drugs because a few days before a friend had warned me about drugs (in Bolivia), which I had dismissed as incredible. In my fed up state of mind and frustration because I had not met her, I chose to amuse her with an ill-choice of joking text messages. I had no idea there were drugs in the bag I thought was hers,” said Frampton.
“And besides, real drug mules would never talk about drugs via text message or email, it’s an unfortunate coincidence.” All his messages fell on deaf ears and received no response.
The tribunal in their ruling referred to the text messages and said they did not believe they were jokes, but signs of mutual understanding between Frampton and Denise Milani. Incoherent, as Frampton and Milani do not know one another in any way.
Denise Milani, 36, is in fact a married, Czech Republic born model and lives in Los Angeles and had never even heard of Professor Paul Frampton until contacted by the Mail on Sunday, when news of Frampton’s arrest broke a few months ago.
“This has no relation with the truth, it’s an unbelievable story, I have never heard anything like it. When it was being translated to me I was just shaking my head in disbelief, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.”
At the recent trial, Frampton’s defence team, a family concern of father, son and daughter, the Oderigo’s, showed images from security cameras at the airport of Frampton leaving his luggage unattended in a café for long periods of time and walking around the airport and talking to security guards, whilst he was waiting for his on-going airline ticket. Not something a drug smuggler would do they argued.
Psychological and psychiatric reports from several Argentine and US professionals said Frampton suffers from Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) and some of the traits of Asperger’s syndrome, which impedes him from distinguishing reality from fantasy and renders him especially gullible and unaware of any of the normal warnings most people would have been alarmed by. He was an ideal target for scammers. Frampton, his lawyers and supporters were confident of his acquittal.
“My life has been in the brilliant world of theoretical physics, challenging the universe, not the sordid world of South American drug traffickers, but they have been my undoing. I simply wasn’t equipped mentally to be suspicious of people. I live in a world of the physics of the universe where colleagues are truthful.”
“I would like to warn people of the evils of internet dating. I would advise internet daters to have a telephone conversation with the other person, preferably one with a video link, not just voice, like there are on computers. They should be cautious. There are so many criminals out there. I never expected to be a scam victim.”
Back in his adopted home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where he has held a position as a professor of physics and astronomy at North Carolina University for 32 of his 42 years in the US, the unfortunate professor is facing another battle. Following his arrest the institution placed him on unpaid leave. “As a tenured professor, it is against the rules to be placed on unpaid leave,” says Frampton. He is currently fighting with the university to get his pay restored and says that in spite of his situation over the last months, he has been able to comply with many faculty duties.
Frampton’s defence lawyers are currently working on an appeal, which will be submitted to the Argentine Appeals Court next week.
“We want the Appeals Court to revoke Frampton’s conviction. We think they need to look at the big picture and not just focus on the drugs in a suitcase and text messages, but look at other matters, which were not taken in to account by the tribunal when they sentenced Frampton,” Eduardo Oderigo Snr. said.
“Paul Frampton is a very special man and there is not enough information to condemn him. It is hard to believe his story, but the judges need to see things through his eyes, not from their point of view, that is what we want to get them to do,” he added.
The appeal will take several months but Dr Oderigo is “optimistic the Appeals Court will revoke the sentence, there are sufficient reasons to do so.”
Frampton’s story has numerous features worthy of a movie, elements only dreamt up by scriptwriters, with the wildest imaginations.
“But, as incredible and incredulous as it might sound, it is the truth,” said Frampton.
Heather Briley for MercoPress - Buenos Aires