Wednesday, August 2, 2017

How to end up in jail for doing chemistry: do it in your apartment

Via random clickings on Twitter, the case of Chase Coble, a Kansas community college chemistry student who finds himself on the business end of a 66 month prison sentence for aggravated arson (article by John Green of The Hutchinson News): 
A judge on Friday sentenced the Hutchinson college student convicted of aggravated arson for starting a fire while conducting chemical experiments in his Plaza Towers apartment to serve more than five years in prison. 
District Judge Trish Rose denied a defense motion to grant Chase Coble probation in the case, or to cut his sentence to just four years, stating the grounds the defense offered were insufficient to grant a sentencing departure.
In case you were wondering, he was hit with the charge of aggravated arson because the apartment building he was doing the experiment in was occupied. It's interesting to read the affidavit from the local police department and their concerns about what he was up to (from another Hutchinson News article):
Among chemicals in the apartment were bags of ammonia, potassium permanganate, saltpeter, sulfur, sodium EDTA, toluene, bleach, methyl ethyl ketone, acetone, camping fuel, vinegar, charcoal, and muriatic, hydrochloric and sulfuric acid. 
All those items, ATF Agent Neal Tierney, a certified explosives specialist, advised investigators, can be used to make homemade explosives.
(A bag of ammonia?) Bizarrely, the student was doing some kind of research project:
“He said he was trying to bond metal and plastic components to create a new type of metallic/plastic material for conductivity in computer components,” the affidavit stated.
What a strange story. It's a shame that he could not have found his way to a local research university laboratory rather than risking life and property running experiments in his apartment.

(Surely home chemists on the interwebz have some advice as to how to avoid Mr. Coble's fate and still conduct chemical experiments in their residence?) 


  1. I think Chase Coble needs counseling, not a 66-month prison sentence. He should not be performing experiments in an apartment building. It seems he knows enough chemistry to be dangerous.

  2. The KMnO4 and saltpeter are evidence he was experimenting with explosives, not metal/plastic bonding. The big question is whether he's a wannabe Unabomber, or just a chemistry nerd / pyro who's only playing with the stuff for entertainment and not looking to blow up buildings or people. If it's the latter, doing that in a high-rise apartment is gross negligence at a minimum.

    As for conducting chemical experiments at home, all the post-9/11 hysteria made it nearly impossible for small business owners to have a legitimate home lab. People like Chase Coble need to be stopped from endangering others, but 99% of the time, it's just some guy with a small chemical distribution business wanting to know which defoamer works the best in his customer's paint.

    1. Yes. As someone who works in the adhesives industry, that is a list of chemicals I don't typically see.

    2. But it is standard chemistry set stuff, at least if they still made real chemistry sets. And there's this bizarre hypocrisy where people who grew up in the era of chemistry sets are now gleefully condemning youth who do the same thing as terrorists. The judge who put this kid away is, of course, a Baby Boomer. Sorry to anyone who here is of that age group, but Baby Boomers love putting kids in prison for doing the stuff they did when they were young. If you don't believe that, I have one word for you - marijuana.

  3. I know a fellow who runs a small chemical business out of their garage. I'm more curious about the next step up, though: how feasible would it be for an entrepreneurial chemist to lease a small commercial space and run a one-person lab as a small business? Does anybody do that (excluding anything illegal)?

  4. what do they (or you) mean by bags of ammonia? It is either lecture bottles of ammonia gas or bags of ammonium nitrate. Which is it?

  5. I'm disgusted by the harshness of the sentence. The kid caused between $5k - $7k in damages to the apartment complex. He could pay that off by selling his car. The sprinkler system contained the damages and put the fire out. Nobody was hurt. As far as I can tell, he has no prior criminal record. The judge agreed he had no malicious intent. Yet 5.5 years in prison. "It could have been worse!"--but it wasn't. And judgements ought to be made on the facts of the case.

    The prosecutor here is ridiculous:

    "He had chlorine gas in his apartment."-- as has anybody who has worked with household bleach. Chlorine gas, by the way, is unlikely to cause serious injuries.

    "He knew what ThTP was, the chemical used in improvised explosive devices in Iran and Iraq." -- Presumably TATP. And so is "knowing" what something is in the news now illegal? And is the reference to Iraq supposed to give him some undue notoriety?

    "He had all the components to make gunpowder." -- Which he also could have legally purchased for $16.99/lb at any sporting goods store in Kansas for black powder hunting.

    Then the judge has the nerve to say, “I hope you can get back on track after serving your sentence and get into something that uses your intelligence," when he knows full well that he is signing away any chance of Coble having a worthwhile future. Gainful employment, housing (maybe this is deserved), college, scholarships, travel, will be out of his reach. Likewise, in prison--if he wants to survive--he will make connections to organized crime and far right ideologies. Not a recipe for reform.


    With that rant aside, it's obvious that he was experimenting with pyrotechnic mixtures. Looks to me like flash powders, acetone peroxide, and MEK peroxide. Kid stuff. Let's check our hysteria though. There is a difference between making pyrotechnics and making high explosives. And there is still a difference between experimenting with high explosives and manufacturing high explosives and bombs (i.e.: weapons). This is not to understate the hazards involved with any of those, but it's obvious this isn't someone plotting violence.

    By the way, "bags of ammonia" are most likely ammonium nitrate cold packs available at any pharmacy--still a good source for the material.

    1. Keep in mind that he committed arson in an apartment building. The willful use of pyrophoric chemicals inside of the living quarters of many others should not go unpunished. Just as one should receive jail time for willfully setting fire to an apartment building.

    2. Looking into it further, Coble sounds like a genuine screwball. The police affidavit is damning. He should not go unpunished but the prosecutor could still have charged him under a lesser offense or offered a plea bargain.

      Regarding chemjobber's inquiry about how to do chemistry at home and avoid legal trouble: this forum has the most extensive discussion that I'm aware of.

      My advice: Once you turn 18, stop.

  6. This definitely touches on some bigger issues. As an incident, though, I think I am going to be obliged to teach my students about this: just as I teach them about Sheri Sangji and Calais Weber. For I have had students express interest in home chemistry before, and I think they should know exactly what can be done to them if they pursue it.

    After I read CJ's note on what made this 'aggravated arson', I actually went and looked up the Kansas statutes and common law definitions of arson. The other people in the building are the 'aggravating' factor here. But what makes it 'arson'? Well, nothing. Kansas considers an accidental fire to be arson if controlled substances are being manufactured. But it does not seem to have been alleged that he actually did this, let alone decided as a matter of fact. The news article mentions that the prosecutor argued that this was not the first small fire this guy had had - that might well support a case of gross negligence, but it lacks mens rea. Setting fire to chemicals in an apartment is stupid, but it's not arson anymore than lighting a candle or a gas stove. You have to actually deliberately set fire to the structure, or attempt to do so. $5k in 'landlord math' means little or no damage: anyone who ever had their deposit stolen knows this. The very elements of the crime are missing. Yet the prosecutor had no problem charging them without proof, because he might have done it, and he can probably get a conviction, and the judge didn't care either, and the jury just knows they don't want to live next door to this weirdo, so blam, have 6 years. He could probably beat it on appeal. He won't. Notice that he is represented by a public defender. This doesn't mean he had a bad defense, the defense filed multiple motions and very likely pointed out just this deficiency in the case, but it does mean that he is not of the upper class bracket and the judge very likely figured he is the sort of person who goes to prison, so send him to prison. USA is #1, for prisons!

    Anyway, the big picture as I see it: this would not have happened back in the Golden Age when companies totally hired chemistry people and chemistry sets were normal toys for kids. As a profession, chemistry sucks. We no longer get the benefit of the doubt, not from employers, not from our neighbors. Everything you complain about regarding the chemistry job market: byzantine and miserable hiring processes, insane emphasis on pedigree versus skills or enthusiasm, shrinking R&D budgets, vanishing funding: these are all signals of a lack of trust in us from the wider society. We're damn near back to the medieval days when entire jurisdictions would prohibit an 'alchemist' from setting foot there. They just plain don't like us.

    Now, I live in an old multifamily dwelling, in a neighborhood of them. These buildings are known to burn quickly, and with fatal consequences. I would never use flammable chemicals at home. It would be a huge risk for myself and others. Like, say, shooting off high-powered fireworks during the height of summer when everything is dry and ready to burn. It is illegal to shoot off fireworks here. You can call the police when somebody does. They will laugh and hang up right in your ear. And if some fool burns my house down it will go into the local paper as a 'tragic accident', and nobody will serve prison time. Or if some moron downstairs or in one of the adjacent buildings decides to do some deep-frying in his kitchen while falling-down drunk, or to smoke in bed, or if some idiot who can't afford to pay his utility bills tries to heat his place with his leaky old propane grill, well, those are also just 'tragic accidents'.

    Because chemists are not held to the same standard as everybody else. People HATE us. It would probably be better to go to college and major in kicking adorable kittens.

    1. "Accidental fires are usually not prosecuted as arson. If however, an accidental fire occurs because of demonstrably gross negligence or a casual disregard for the consequences of setting the fire, these fires can cease to be judged as accidental and may instead be seen as arson fires"

      This is copied and pasted from a website accident dot laws dot com. I can see it being relatively easy to argue that his actions qualify as gross negligence. I am glad there are laws to prevent accidental fires, but if you accidentally cause a fire while doing something like work in your clandestine laboratory, the excuse of "whoops" goes out the window.. and rightly so. I imagine that "seeing what it looks like to light buckets of methanol on fire" is similarly prosecuted. Furthermore, I would hazard a guess that the experiments he performed in that apartment were also in violation of the law, regardless of accidental fires.

    2. Anon, I actually looked at the Kansas statutes. If you have case law or something which might modify this and applies to Kansas, give it, but otherwise: any damn random thing somebody puts on the Internet is not the law. You should probably look up some famous stupidity-related fires to see what the usual charges are: they aren't generally 'arson'. I'd like to see an actual example where a person was convicted of arson for negligently NOT setting a building on fire.