Man charged in bomb plot mystifies many

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

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.

Although Mr. Gresham said his business grossed as much as $3 million a year, neither the state of Maryland nor the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has any record of Mr. Gresham's active involvement in the transportation, storage, treatment or disposal of waste.

People identified in corporate documents as officers or members of the boards of directors profess to know little of what the family-run companies did. For example, one former student, Wayne Porter, agreed to sit on the board of directors of Applied Technology International Ltd. -- another Gresham company formed in 1988 -- yet he was unclear about what the company did.

Members of the Gresham family refused to be interviewed for this article. Mr. Gresham is in Baltimore City Jail with no bail on a charge of conspiracy to commit mail fraud through use of an explosive device.

Despite the seeming lack of regulatory documentation, Mr. Gresham had no shortage of business propositions. Several times, his proposals for shipping waste overseas came to the attention of Greenpeace, the international environmental organization. A spokesman for the group said yesterday that it had no evidence that any of those projects was ever undertaken.

Documents provided by Greenpeace show that in 1987 Mr. Gresham, in tandem with a New York company, proposed to ship dioxin-contaminated soil from the Love Canal toxic waste dump in Niagara Falls, N.Y., to Morocco, where he planned to incinerate it.

He also proposed, this time with a California concern, to ship toxic and hazardous waste to Papua New Guinea and to China.

None of those projects ever occurred.

When told of Mr. Gresham's Love Canal proposal, Damian J. Duda, the EPA's Love Canal project coordinator, laughed, calling the plan "preposterous."

"Love Canal has been so studied and is so complex a site that it is difficult to believe that any serious consideration would be given" to such a plan, he said.

But Mr. Gresham apparently was not one to shrink from grandiose schemes. "I think the man has a certain amount of delusion," said a lawyer who had worked with Mr. Gresham. "He dares to think of things or dream of things that all of us for practical reasons wouldn't think of."

At one point during sworn testimony in the 1988 insurance investigation, Mr. Gresham said he was working on a contract to "incinerate" 420,000 acres of dioxin-contaminated soil in the Chesapeake Bay.

L State environmental officials said no such contract existed.

Even the last chemical deal for which Mr. Gresham is charged is somewhat mystifying as a business proposition. In 1990, Essex Chemical Co., now part of Dow Chemical Co., paid Mr. Gresham $983,000 to take 2.2 million gallons of sodium hydrosulfide from storage tanks in Baltimore and New Jersey. Dan Fellner, a company spokesman, said the money was to pay for the shipment of the chemical, which can be used in making paper, to South Korea, China and South America, where Mr. Gresham claimed to have buyers. If Mr. Gresham, who had no previous dealings with Essex, could sell the chemical, he would keep the profit, Mr. Fellner said.

Mr. Gresham had the chemicals moved to a storage tank at Allied Terminals in Norfolk. But, the FBI said, he was then unable to find an overseas buyer, and his storage fees -- $16,000 a month -- were mounting.

Mr. Fellner said the company had sold sodium hydrosulfide to overseas buyers in the past. However, other experts in the chemical industry said Mr. Gresham's solution, which court records show was 80 percent water, was virtually worthless and unlikely to attract an overseas buyer.

The solution, said William Fetter, product manager for sulfur chemicals with PPG Industries Inc., a Pittsburgh chemical manufacturer, "isn't worth anything. I don't know where they could begin to sell that in the U.S., and you couldn't afford to sell it in China."

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