Environmentalists Had Targeted Gresham For Three Years

February 27, 1991|By Michael James | Michael James,Staff writer

The Greenpeace environmental group placed Charles Edward Gresham Jr.and his companies on a list of "people to be watched" for at least three years before Gresham's alleged scheme to blow up chemical tanks in Norfolk, Va., last month.

Greenpeace and federal authorities this week revealed new information about the case against the Ellicott City man that investigators hope will help piece together events leading to the alleged plot.

Gresham and a business associate, Joseph W. Openshaw of St. Johns, Ariz., concocted the scheme in Hong Kong, where Gresham traveled last spring on an unsuccessful last-ditch effort to find an investor toease his business difficulties, investigators charged this week.

An FBI agent testified at Gresham's preliminary hearing yesterday that agents found traces of a black powder in the trunk of Gresham's 1988 Jaguar -- a powder consistent with what was discovered in the bombsin Norfolk.

The hearing was continuing at the Howard County Sun'spress time.

Since no one expressed interest in buying Gresham's sodium hydrosulfide chemical, and since his Applied Technology Inc. business had been struggling over environmental stumbling blocks for more than three years, a quick solution seemed to lie in the insurance money, said FBI spokesman James Dearborn.

Openshaw professed to have business connections throughout the Orient, where Gresham hoped tofind a buyer for the chemical, Dearborn said.

In the meantime, Gresham was also reportedly hoping to open channels for building chemical waste incinerators in China and Papua, New Guinea -- plans that were thwarted by watchdog organizations such as Greenpeace, according to Greenpeace documents.

"I think primarily, though, he was hoping he'd be able to get rid of those chemicals, which were getting to be an albatross around his neck," Dearborn said.

Gresham, Openshaw and another Arizona man, Cecil Howard Ross, were arrested Feb. 9, five days after two homemade pipe bombs were found at the Norfolk chemicalplant. Gresham had insured the chemicals in one tank for $2.7 million. Authorities say the explosions could have left thousands of peopledead or injured.

Investigators say Openshaw and Gresham shared qualities that seemed to draw them to each other upon their first meeting in Hong Kong. Both men had spiraling financial difficulties, yet seemed to thrive on the idea that they were going to make it big on the international scene.

Gresham, 57, a resident of the Dunloggin neighborhood in Ellicott City, was well-known to business associates and state investigators for his grandiose business propositions, in which he claimed to have investments working in countries such as Sudan and Egypt. Openshaw, those who knew him say, had the same qualities.

"We never knew what he did to earn his money, although I strongly suspect he really didn't have any," said Bruce Oberson, the chief of police in Openshaw's hometown of St. Johns. The town is in Arizona's Apache County, about 18 miles from the New Mexico border.

Openshaw, a devout Mormon, often claimed to have traveled extensively to Japan and China in connection with his engineering business, Oberson said. An telephone answering machine at Openshaw's home, he said, played a Japanese recording, apparently for the benefit of his Far East clients.

"He claimed he had these foreign connections, but he didn't seem to be making any money from them," Oberson said. Openshaw, 36, lived in a house he inherited several years ago and did not have an affluent style of living, he said.

Openshaw, like Gresham, had no criminal record. The two were introduced by a mutual friend while in theFar East, and Openshaw introduced Gresham to Ross a short time later, investigators say.

Gresham, a former University of Baltimore vice president, had experienced mounting financial pressures during the 1980s. He borrowed $250,000 from local banks, was fined $25,000 by the state Insurance Commission for running an unlicensed insurance firmand was the target of a $440,000 civil suit filed in 1989.

The suit, filed by a Randallstown lending firm, alleged that Gresham failedto pay back a $50,000 loan he borrowed at a 100 percent interest rate.

Many of the loans went toward subsidizing his frequent plane trips overseas, where he hoped to open new markets for his Applied Technology firm. But like many "fast-buck" opportunists who enter the chemical waste exporting field, he found the environmental lobby too tough to crack, said James Vallette, a Greenpeace waste-export specialist.

Gresham was on a Greenpeace "list of people to be watched" thatwas passed on to the Environmental Protection Agency, Vallette said.Primarily, Greenpeace was concerned over Gresham's involvement in a 1987 plan to transport chemical waste from New York's Love Canal to an incinerator in Morocco.

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