On November 30, graduate student Jason Sanchez ’09 was arrested and charged with reckless endangerment in the first degree—a felony— after police responding to a report of a suspicious device in the basement of the Cherry Arms apartment found potentially dangerous chemicals in Sanchez’s locked storage area. The chemicals included acetone, xylene, nitric acid, sulphuric acid, propane, and butane. The suspicious device is reportedly a commercial grade vacuum chamber also belonging to Sanchez.
Under New York penal code, an individual is guilty of reckless endangerment if he or she shows “a depraved indifference to human life” and by “recklessly engaging in conduct which creates a grave risk of death to another person.”
According to police, the chemicals in Sanchez’s possession posed that grave risk of death to the other tenants in his apartment building. Deputy Police Chief Timothy Beebe remarked that the HAZMAT crews that disposed of the chemicals after Sanchez’s arrest noted that the chemicals were being stored in very unsafe conditions. Beebe also commented that it appeared as if Sanchez had been trying to set up some kind of laboratory in the basement.
When reached for comment, professor and Acting Department Head of the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology Curt Breneman remarked that thought that the list of chemicals “[were] certainly not terrorist chemicals,” adding that they should be used under controlled circumstances but were not of the worst toxicity or danger level by any means. He went on to say that xylene and acetone are both common solvents, and are flammable in vapor form. Both could possibly, in the right concentrations and with a source of ignition, create an explosion much like a natural gas explosion, but both are also as common as nail polish remover and modeling glue.
As far as the acids were concerned, according to Breneman the most obvious risk is spilling the acid on a person, but other than that the danger and risk posed by the acids depends on the type of acids used. Propane and butane are two common hydrocarbons used as sources of fuel for many day to day activities; both are also capable of creating explosive conditions if released in the right concentration.
Breneman went on to comment that he thought that saying those chemicals posed a significant risk is something of an overstatement, and that from a practical standpoint they wouldn’t have posed a grave risk of death without a very specific build-up of gasses.
Sanchez himself has recently spoken out about his arrest, commenting on his intent and the chemicals he had in his possession. He stated that he had purchased most of his chemicals from Lowe’s, with the exception of nitric acid, which he purchased from a biodiesel supply website, and that the chemicals were stored in their original containers.
Sanchez was also charged with one count of obstructing governmental administration in the second degree and one count of resisting arrest, both misdemeanors. He was arraigned in Bethlehem town court and released following his posting of $15,000 bail. The preliminary hearing date is set for December 21. Sanchez told the Times Union that he plans to take a leave of absence next semester to pay his attorney.