Almost five years have passed since Paul Frampton, a former UNC-Chapel Hill physics professor, was fighting accusations in an Argentinian courtroom of being a drug mule caught red-handed in a Buenos Aires airport with cocaine in the lining of his suitcase.
The allegations stemmed from an online dating site scam involving a buxom bikini model that continues to dog Frampton today.
The story began when Frampton, lonely, recently divorced and looking for love, added his name with millions of others in 2011 to an online dating site.
Within weeks, he was thinking about marriage and family with a woman he had never spoken with on the phone but believed he was chatting with numerous times online through Yahoo Messenger.
In January 2012, the particle physicist was off to Bolivia for what he thought would be the beginning of a beautiful romance. But it turned ugly fast. Not only was the model he expected to finally come face to face with nowhere to be seen in La Paz, he received word that she had been called to a modeling shoot in Brussels and that more air travel to meet her would be necessary.
Empty bag and dreams of bikini model
But she had forgotten a bag in Bolivia, the professor was told. A man dropped off what Frampton described as an empty suitcase in front of the hotel he was staying in, and the professor agreed to take it to Buenos Aires, where he thought he would get a ticket to Brussels. The ticket didn’t arrive as quickly as he had hoped, so Frampton decided in the Argentinian airport that he would return to Raleigh, where he had left his car 15 days earlier in the Raleigh-Durham International Airport parking lot.
“I was in the departure gate and they called my name,” Frampton said, recounting what he thought would be his final minutes in Buenos Aires. “I thought they were going to upgrade me to a better seat.”
But there was an issue with the bag he had picked up in Bolivia and several law enforcement officers were there to question him about it.
When they ripped it open and found slightly more than four pounds of cocaine in the lining, Frampton says he was in disbelief – an astonishment that continued to overwhelm him after his arrest, his imprisonment in a notorious foreign prison and the conviction and four-year sentence in an Argentinian courtroom.
Though the 73-year-old Englishman is free now after serving two years of his sentence, Frampton continues to spin those bizarre experiences in 2012, 2013 and 2014 over and over in his mind.
He lives in England now and works at Oxford University. But his thoughts turn often to North Carolina and UNC-Chapel Hill and the way he, a tenured professor, was fired.
“There’s been a dramatic development regarding my situation in Argentina and UNC,” Frampton said in a recent phone call from England.
Over the summer, he contacted a forensic linguist and asked him to review text messages the Argentinian prosecutor used to persuade judges that he, indeed, was aware the dark suitcase he was ferrying through the airport contained drugs.
“I didn’t write the texts,” Frampton said. “I’ve always known they were invented. They were invented by or for the prosecutor in my trial.”
Forensic linguist reviews texts
John Olsson, a renowned forensic linguist with more than 20 years of experience reviewing phone texts, email, blog posts, letters and witness statements, treated the inquiry from Frampton as he would any other.
In addition to being director of the Forensic Language Institute founded in 1994, Olsson is a trained barrister in England with a deep understanding of how evidence is used at criminal and civil trials.
So when Frampton called him this summer, saying he thought he had been framed, Olsson asked the physicist to send him the texts in question and samples of email he had written close to the same time.
In a recent telephone interview, Olsson said he knew nothing about Frampton’s case in Argentina.
“I never research clients online before I finish my work,” Olsson said.
Over a period of 10 days, Olsson reviewed a series of texts that prosecutors presented at Frampton’s trial, messages they claimed were exchanged on his phone in the morning and early afternoon on Jan. 22, 2012, and later retrieved by investigators.
They included messages such as “Is your network down sweetheart?“ and “Have you read my texts, Darling.“
Then others such as:
“I am about to call tom. Was worried only about sniffer dogs but more”
“Want to kiss u b4 I die not other way round”
“Need to know if your loyalty is with bad guy-agent & bolivian friends — or good guy, your husband?”
“PLS COME ONLINE BABY. LIFE-DEATH SITUACION WITH NO GUN?”
Olsson then compared the text messages with email written by Frampton in January 2012.
‘Read like a film script’
In a report shared by Frampton, Olsson stated that his first observation was that the Frampton emails “are written in a formal style,” and given the nature of the topics, he would have expected much more informal language to be used. Olsson noted that Frampton’s emails were often written in a passive voice without the use of contractions.
“In approximately 600 words of running text there is only one contraction, viz ‘I’ll try to send you a more specific e-mail tomorrow’,” Olson noted in his report.
The text messages, Olsson noted, are written in a notably different style. Not only do they contain common “textspeak” characteristics such as using “2” for “to,” “u” for “you” and “r” for “are,” some of them do not appear to have been written by a native speaker of English.
One of the messages, Olsson pointed out, contains the Spanish spelling of situation – “situacion.” Others infuse Spanish grammar constructions with English phrasing, leading Olsson to further believe the messages were written by a native Spanish speaker.
Additionally, Olsson noted the frequent use of airport codes in the messages for cities, something that made him think someone such as a law enforcement officer, customs official or someone working at an airport was responsible for the phrasing.
“In addition to the above points, I suggest the text messages read like a film script with phrases such as ‘sniffer dogs’, the apparent obsession of the writer with ‘loyalty’, and therefore its antithesis betrayal, the danger, e.g. as in ‘life-death situacion’, the reference to weapons, as in ‘with no gun’ and the, I suggest, melodramatic ‘want to kiss u b4 i die,’ ” Olsson wrote in the report. “The preoccupations inherent in these messages – and, more importantly, the terms in which they are expressed – are not compatible with a person who has spent his life in academia.”
Academia is where Frampton hopes to make his case with Olsson’s report.
Olsson completed his research into the texts, compiled his conclusions and then searched online for more details about Frampton’s case.
Like many, he was surprised that someone would agree to take a suitcase from a stranger through an airport.
Frampton said he knows better now.
“I did something stupid,” he said in a recent phone call. “There’s no question about that.”
He’s done with online dating, too. “I would never do that again,” Frampton said. “I suppose I was lonely. It seemed harmless enough.”
But Frampton takes issue with UNC citing text messages that he maintains he did not write as part of the reason for firing him.
There’s another problem, though.
Joke lost in translation
At the trial, Frampton called the messages jokes.
A writer for The New York Times, who profiled Frampton in a magazine piece published March 3, 2013, reported that Frampton explained them as his attempt to keep his love interest “amused.”
Frampton acknowledged in one phone call how someone might construe that him calling the messages jokes could also conclude that meant he had written them.
But in a follow-up call several days later, Frampton offered a different explanation of what occurred at a trial that was conducted in Spanish with an English translator.
Frampton now says he said in court that the messages were jokes, but not something he had a hand in.
“What I was saying was the text messages described by the prosecutor are a joke,” Frampton says now, adding that he meant they were fabricated. “What I meant was the person joking was the prosecutor.”
“I think the translator might be responsible,” Frampton said.
Frampton did not communicate with his love interest through extensive texting, he said.
“I would send a text and say, ‘Are you online?’ ”
Then they would chat further on a messaging site.
The texts were introduced at trial on the last day, Frampton said, and the lawyer he had hired to represent him had assured him at the start that he did not think he would be convicted.
Not only was Frampton reeling from the experience, he also had difficulty following along in the courtroom because of his language barrier.
“The whole thing was surreal,” he said.
Frampton now believes he was ensnared in a scheme that included the Argentinian prosecutors and – much to his dismay – no bikini model or any other woman hoping to become his wife and have his children.
“You might say, ‘What do they have against Paul Frampton?’,” he said.
He’s got his theory, and it goes back to beginnings of the war on drugs and money he says the United States pays to Argentina to help battle against organized crime and smuggling.
“My understanding is that no drug case that ever went to trial ends in acquittal there,” Frampton said. “The Argentinian system is totally corrupt.”
Frampton scoffs at using the forensic linguist’s report to try toand reverse the verdict from his trial in Argentina.
“Do you think the prosecutor is going to admit he created this evidence,” Frampton said. “Not a chance in Argentina.”
But UNC, Frampton hopes, might be persuaded to reverse course.
It eats at him that his dismissal letter includes the text messages he insists he did not write as supporting evidence for severing his employment.
“Your drug trafficking conviction and the conduct surrounding it have damaged the university’s reputation and violated the public trust,” Bruce W. Carney, the UNC provost in April 2013 who rose to the administrative post from the department of physics and astronomy, wrote in the letter ending Frampton’s employment. “Your conduct embarrassed your academic department and the university as a whole, including your coverage in local, national and international media.”
It’s not so much about the money. He won $263,000 in back pay and benefits through appeals in the North Carolina courts. But he was unable to persuade a judge to overturn the employment action.
“I’d like them to clear my name,” Frampton said. “Being fired from a tenured position is supposed to be extremely difficult. What I think is UNC has a moral and intellectual obligation to reinstate my tenure. I think the provost made a grievous error.”