Man charged in bomb plot mystifies many

February 26, 1991|By Michael Olloveand William F. Zorzi Jr. Ann LoLordo of The Sun's metropolitan staff contributed to this article.

An article in The Sun yesterday about Charles Edward Gresham Jr. misidentified Brother Corby Duffy. Brother Corby formerly served as the dean of students at Mount St. Joseph High School, from which Mr. Gresham's sons graduated.

To his fellow instructors at the University of Baltimore, Charles Edward Gresham Jr. used to pass on one piece of advice. Whatever you do, he'd tell them, "always leave 'em laughing."

Yet, just over two weeks ago, the ruddy-faced, incessantly jovial former college professor left them thunderstruck. The man who had once enchanted his students with good-humored lectures and had endeared himself to friends and neighbors with acts of kindness was accused by the FBI of being the mastermind of a heinous criminal plot -- the bombing of chemical storage tanks in Norfolk, Va.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Had the plot succeeded, had the fuses on the pipe bombs not malfunctioned, law enforcement authorities say, a square-mile area of the port city may have been incinerated. A resulting chain of explosions and chemical fires could have caused thousands of deaths and injuries. And the release of a variety of caustic and toxic chemicals into the air and nearby waterways would have caused, in the words of one federal prosecutor, "an unprecedented environmental catastrophe."

Those who know the 57-year-old father of three are now left trying to square how a man they liked and admired could be charged with a criminal act that displayed a total absence of concern for human life -- a crime allegedly concocted, the FBI says, to collect on a $2.7 million insurance policy on chemicals Mr. Gresham was storing in one of the tanks.

They can't make the man and the crime fit.

"He is a gentleman and a gentle man," insisted Brother Corby Duffy, the former principal at Mount St. Joseph's High School, from which Mr. Gresham's sons graduated.

To his neighbors in a well-groomed area of Ellicott City, Mr. Gresham presented himself as a successful and sophisticated entrepreneur with business ventures in Morocco, Egypt, Brazil and the Sudan. To his students, he was an engaging lecturer.

"He was an excellent teacher, an inspirational person," said one of his former Towson State University students, who didn't want his name used. "He made you feel that that there wasn't anything you couldn't do. He gave you the feeling that big business was run by little people."

An examination of a number of public records indicate that Mr. Gresham began running into financial difficulties in 1988. At that point, he was running two companies. One of them was an insurance company, then under investigation by the Maryland Insurance Division. The other company brokered the sale of chemical materials and waste.

"This is the driest period of time I have ever had in my life," Mr. Gresham said in deposition in 1988 during a lawsuit against his insurance company. "We have been selling off property. We have been selling off stocks and things of this nature for the last 18 months."

Three times between 1987 and 1989 Mr. Gresham mortgaged his home, valued at $217,890, to pump money into his businesses. Two $25,000 loans have been repaid, though a third, worth $100,000, has not.

He also borrowed $50,000 from an Ellicott City couple and a Randallstown investment counselor. Under the terms of the loans, he agreed to repay them both at 100 percent interest. He had paid none of that money back and was sued by the couple. In that case, as in the insurance lawsuit, Mr. Gresham was forced to represent himself because he could not afford to hire an attorney.

Yet, when a business adviser for Mr. Gresham once suggested he consider filing for bankruptcy, he told the adviser, "That would just be unacceptable as a solution."

Mr. Gresham "had a very high sense of honor . . . social propriety," said the adviser. "I think bankruptcy would be untenable, a personal disgrace" for him.

In 1988, the state of Maryland forced Mr. Gresham to shut down an insurance company he founded, Oak Charter International Ltd., for the most elemental of sins: The longtime business professor had not obtained the license required to operate an insurance company legally or to reserve the assets to cover the insurance policies he was writing.

More difficult to explain were the activities of Applied Technology Inc., the company that Mr. Gresham formed in 1984 and has said was his main business interest. In court documents and Applied Technology's printed materials, Mr. Gresham describes the company as involved in the transportation and disposal of hazardous chemicals and waste, much of it overseas.

Companies "pay me for that material that I take," Mr. Gresham said in a deposition in 1988. "I'm taking it off their hands. I'm the garbage man, literally."

Because waste is so heavily regulated, its legal movement and disposal generate much official documentation -- such as permits and manifests. Mr. Gresham's business does not appear to have produced any of that paperwork.

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