U.S. says Gresham envisaged Va. disaster

February 14, 1991|By Michael Olloveand Sheridan Lyons William F. Zorzi Jr. of The Sun's metropolitan staff contributed to this article.

Charles E. Gresham Jr., characterized by his friends as a doting father and a caring neighbor, "coldly calculated" the destruction of a square-mile area of Norfolk, Va. -- a catastrophe that could have caused thousands of "casualties and unprecedented environmental damage," a federal prosecutor said yesterday.

"He was willing to endanger the lives of many innocent people," Assistant U.S. Attorney Ira L. Oring said at a hearing in which Mr. Gresham was denied bail.

Mr. Gresham, 57, of the 3800 block of Spring Meadow Drive in Ellicott City, is charged with plotting to blow up a giant tank at Norfolk's Allied Terminals that contained 2.2 million gallons of sodium hydrosulfide, which he was storing there. Authorities say Mr. Gresham attempted to destroy the chemicals to collect $2.7 million in insurance.

On Feb. 2, two pipe bombs were discovered attached to the tank containing Mr. Gresham's chemicals and another tank containing methanol. Because of faulty fuses, neither detonated.

As a precaution, authorities evacuated thousands of residents from the port area.

Last Saturday, the FBI arrested Mr. Gresham, a one-time professor at the University of Baltimore and Towson State University, at his home and two alleged accomplices were arrested in Arizona.

Authorities say the case remains under investigation, and that the person who planted the bombs is still at large.

They also said that Mr. Gresham had once before attempted to ignite a bomb at Allied Terminals.

"Bombs were placed on the tanks several months before and had to be removed by someone at [Mr.] Gresham's behest because they did not go off," Mr. Oring said.

Although Mr. Gresham has no criminal record, Mr. Oring revealed that Mr. Gresham ran afoul of authorities earlier. In May 1988, Mr. Gresham signed a consent decree admitting that he had sold insurance through several companies that were not licensed to sell it.

He agreed to pay $25,000 in civil penalties, but a subsequent investigation by the Maryland attorney general's office did not result in criminal charges.

At yesterday's hearing in federal court, law enforcement authorities presented the most dramatic depiction yet of what they believe would have happened had the pipe bombs detonated in Norfolk.

The explosion, Mr. Oring said, would have sent missiles flying perhaps as far as a half-mile away, possibly causing secondary explosions at nearby tanks containing heating oil and gasoline. As many as 5,000 deaths may have occurred, Mr. Oring said.

In addition, Mr. Oring said the explosion could have caused the release of toxic chemicals and medical waste stored at Allied and at other nearby facilities. Those chemicals, he said, would have poisoned the atmosphere as well as the nearby Elizabeth River.

Mr. Gresham was well aware of the potential damage, and discussed it with one of his accomplices, Mr. Oring said. "They both agreed that it would take out a one-square-mile area," he said.

However, a chemical and explosives expert who was interviewed after yesterday's proceedings described the government's picture of the potential destruction as "patently absurd."

William Cruice, vice president of Hazards Research Corp. of Mount Arlington, N.J., said the chemicals in the vicinity of the pipe bombs were highly unlikely to have caused major damage beyond the explosion site.

Authorities said a New Jersey-based chemical company last year paid Mr. Gresham's company, Applied Technology Inc., $983,000 to dispose of the sodium hydrosulfide.

However, they said Mr. Gresham had been unable to find an overseas buyer for the chemical and was four months behind in paying storage fees. In December, authorities said, he took out a $2.7 million insurance policy.

At the hearing, Magistrate Paul M. Rosenberg refused to release Gresham on bail, even though his lawyer, Joshua R. Treem, offered to post all of Mr. Gresham's property and those of his daughter.

Despite more than two dozen letters of support from Mr. Gresham's friends and neighbors, Magistrate Rosenberg said he considered Mr. Gresham's eventual conviction on the charges a certainty and therefore his incentive to flee quite strong.

"I'm satisfied that the evidence is overwhelming, that a conviction is inevitable and that he is likely to receive the maximum sentence," Magistrate Rosenberg said, later adding, "I'm satisfied he has every reason to flee and no reason whatsoever to face the music."

Yesterday's hearing and other information acquired by The Sun provided a much more complete picture of Mr. Gresham as a businessman involved in far-flung and diverse activities. One of them prompted an investigation by the Maryland Insurance Division and a second investigation by the Maryland attorney general.

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