U. Nebraska Chemistry Professor Arrested for Giving Chemical Explosives to Students

Sept. 13, 2006
John Belot Jr., an associate chemistry professor at UNL, was arrested Monday evening

While U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton prepared to speak at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln on Friday, an associate chemistry professor offered homemade explosives to his students.

John Belot Jr., an associate chemistry professor at UNL, was arrested Monday evening at home and transported to the Lancaster County Jail after he allegedly allowed students to take the explosive devices from his General Chemistry II class Friday morning.

Capt. Carl Oestmann of University Police said Belot was charged with possession of a destructive device and unlawful sale of explosives, both of which are Class IV felonies. He also was charged with storing explosives in violation of safety regulations, a Class III misdemeanor.

Oestmann explained that "giving away" is covered under the unlawful sell of explosives statute.

Before the arrest, Belot was suspended from the university with pay.

Chancellor Harvey Perlman said he was concerned after hearing about the situation, especially since it put people at risk of bodily harm and occurred on a day when a major guest, Bolton, was scheduled to visit campus.

"It's clearly not the kind of thing, at least with the information I currently have, you want to have going on at the university," Perlman said.

Bolton spoke as part of the E.N. Thompson Forum on World Issues at the Lied Center for Performing Arts on Friday afternoon.

Kelly Bartling, a spokeswoman for the Office of University Communications, said the distribution of the explosives and Bolton's visit were only a coincidence, but the ambassador's security officers were notified of the situation.

Bartling said she didn't believe the situation actually affected Bolton's security during the visit.

After the chemistry class ended Friday, some students turned a number of the devices in to University Police, which is now investigating the incident.

Alison Sandoval, a sophomore secondary education major and a student in Belot's class, said Belot was "acting like his normal self" in class Friday.

"Personally, the first day I met him the impression I got was, 'This guy is crazy,' " Sandoval said. "He's just a very high-strung guy ... just all over the place."

She said Belot kept getting off topic during his lecture on solutions and talked about some explosives that his student assistant made during the summer. The assistant obtained the necessary supplies using Belot's name, she said.

Sandoval said Belot said that he had detonated one of the devices already, and that the explosive produced a small mushroom cloud, "like mini H-bombs."

Belot sent a student to his office to retrieve a paper bag that contained the explosives, she said.

When the student came back with the bag, Sandoval noticed a corrosive liquid was leaking from one of the corners of the bag.

"I saw that, and I was like, 'are you serious?'" she said.

Belot dismissed class early, Sandoval said, and she left too quickly to see if any students took the devices with them.

Capt. Oestmann said eight of the explosives have been recovered so far and are now in the possession of the Lincoln Fire Department.

Oestmann wouldn't quantify how many of the devices could still be in the possession of students. But in an e-mail sent to students in Belot's class, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Juan Franco said he believed students took nine of the devices.

Bartling said the explosives are cylinders three to four inches long and one inch in diameter. Some of them are painted silver and red.

"The materials are volatile and dangerous, and they could cause severe bodily injury," Bartling said. "And with any sort of homemade explosive like that, you just don't know when it might explode."

Oestmann said the explosives are powerful enough to destroy a hand or an arm.

And because they are homemade and were kept on campus, Oestmann and Bartling said the devices were completely illegal. Neither would comment on whether Belot would face prosecution.

Belot could not be reached for comment, and chemistry department Chairman Patrick Dussault was out of town Monday.

Bartling said UNL administrators and the police are still trying to figure out what exactly happened during the class, and she wouldn't speculate on Belot's behavior or motivation for giving the explosives to students. Administrators also are looking into whether the chemistry department has more explosives on hand, she said.

Perlman said to his knowledge, this situation has not happened before at UNL.

"I don't think one has to do much to alert people that this is not the kind of behavior that is expected of the university," he said, adding that he didn't yet know the full facts of the situation.

Franco and Perlman both said they were proud of the students who already returned some of the explosives, and they asked the remainder to follow suit.

Students who turn the devices over to the university will not be subject to disciplinary action, Franco said.

Oestmann said he was confident the rest of the explosives would be turned over to police sometime today.

"It's just not a safe situation," Bartling said. "Nobody will get in trouble or anything, we just need to have it back."