MIT Sophomore Arrested for Innocuous LED Device

Logan Employee Spooked by Wire, 9V Battery, LEDs

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Star A. Simpson ’10 leaves the East Boston District Court after her arraignment the afternoon of Sept. 21, 2007 on the charge of possession of a hoax device. She was released on $750 bail.
Marissa Vogt—The Tech

Star A. Simpson ’10, wearing a circuit board that lit up and was connected to a battery, was arrested at gunpoint at Logan International Airport the morning of Friday, Sept. 21 after the device was mistaken for a bomb. Simpson was charged with possession of a hoax device and was released on $750 bail the same day; her pre-trial hearing is scheduled for Oct. 29, 2007 at 9 a.m. in East Boston District Court.

Simpson (a former Tech photographer) was wearing the device, which included green light-emitting diodes arranged in the shape of a star, during the Sept. 20 MIT Career Fair. Simpson was at the airport to pick up her boyfriend who arrived at Logan Friday morning, said Ross E. Schreiber, the defense attorney who represented Simpson at her arraignment Friday.

Simpson approached an information booth in Logan’s Terminal C wearing the light-up device, Assistant Suffolk District Attorney Wayne Margolis said during Simpson’s arraignment. Margolis also said that Simpson had been wearing the device for at least a few days.

She “said it was a piece of art” while at the information booth, Margolis said, and “refused to answer any more questions.” Jake Wark, spokesperson for the Suffolk County District Attorney, said that Simpson only described the LED lights after she was “repeatedly questioned by the MassPort employee.” Simpson then “roamed briefly around the terminal,” Wark said. Margolis said this caused several Logan employees to flee the building.

As Simpson left the building, she disconnected the battery powering the device, according to a press release provided by Wark.

Simpson had five to six ounces of Play-Doh in her hands, State Police Maj. Scott Pare said in a press conference Friday morning before the arraignment. The Play-Doh, or putty, may have been mistaken for plastic explosives. The putty was a “very small amount in the shape of a rose,” Simpson’s current attorney Tom Dwyer said yesterday. Simpson intended to give the rose to her boyfriend, Dwyer said.

Wark said that there was no mention of the putty in the police reports used to file the charges.

Simpson was confronted at a traffic island outside Terminal C by state troopers with MP5 submachine guns, and she was arrested at approximately 8 a.m., Pare said during the conference. “I’m shocked and appalled that somebody would wear this type of device to an airport at this time,” Pare said. “We’re currently under [aviation threat level] Orange. The threat is there against aviation. We did have MP5 officers respond to the scene immediately.” State police determined that the device was not a bomb after her arrest.

“She followed instructions as was required by the state police and within minutes [Explosive Ordinance Disposal] unit found that it was an innocuous device and we took her into custody,” Pare said at the press conference. “Thankfully, because she followed instructions as was required, she ended up in a cell as opposed to the morgue. Had she not followed instructions, deadly force may have been used.”

The device consisted of a white breadboard — similar to those contained in 6.002 (Circuits and Electronics) laboratory kits — and LEDs wired to a 9-volt battery. Simpson wore it over a black hooded sweatshirt, which was also displayed at the press conference Friday morning.

At Simpson’s arraignment on Friday, Margolis asked for a $5,000 cash bail. Margolis said the high bail amount was requested because Simpson had provided an address in Hawaii, not a local address; she had refused to answer questions at the information desk in Logan Airport; and she showed “a total disregard to understand the context of the situation she’s in, which is an airport post-9/11.” Simpson is from Hawaii.

Schreiber, representing Simpson at her arraignment, said that the bail amount was “completely unreasonable,” telling the court that Simpson is a 19-year-old sophomore at MIT majoring in Course VI (Electrical Engineering and Computer Science). Schreiber said that there was no evidence Simpson acted in a suspicious manner or that she ever pretended the circuit board was anything but art.

Schreiber added that Simpson is the secretary of the MIT Electronics Research Society, was a National Merit Semi Finalist and captain of her high school robotics team, and was at the airport for legitimate reasons. Tim Anderson, Simpson’s boyfriend, confirmed to The Tech that he arrived at the airport Friday morning. Anderson was on a Continental Airlines connecting flight from Oakland, Calif.

Schreiber said Simpson and Anderson are “not the type of people who go around seeking trouble.” He also added that Simpson is “doing very well” at MIT.

Bail was set by Judge Paul Mahony at $750. As part of her release agreement, Simpson must stay away from Logan Airport between now and her pre-trial hearing on Oct. 29, 2007.

Last January, the Boston Police shut down sections of roads and bridges in response to LED signs advertising the “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” movie. A few of the signs, which depicted Mooninite characters from the movie, were destroyed by bomb squads.

Prosecutors must prove ‘intent’

Simpson was charged under Chapter 266 of Massachusetts law, Dwyer said. The law requires that prosecutors prove Simpson transported a “hoax device or hoax substance with the intent to cause anxiety, unrest, fear or personal discomfort to any person or group of persons.” (For full text of the Massachusetts law, see page 22.)

Dwyer said that he firmly believes there is no evidence to support intent to cause anxiety and that “there is not a crime here.” “It’s not a crime in Massachusetts to exercise bad judgment,” Dwyer said.

Dwyer said he expects the case to be dismissed by the end of October.

The charge was sought by the state troopers assigned to Logan Airport, Wark said. “This is not the type of offense in which you can compare it to the average case,” Wark said. “Frankly, it’s rare that this charge is brought.”

Simpson faces up to five years in a state prison, up to two-and-a-half years in a house of correction, or up to a $5,000 fine.

MIT releases statement

MIT is cooperating with the state police in the investigation, according to a statement released by the MIT News Office Friday afternoon. “As reported to us by authorities, Ms. Simpson’s actions were reckless and understandably created alarm at the airport,” the statement continues. (For full text of the MIT statement, see page 20.)

MIT’s characterization of Simpson’s actions as “reckless” prompted some outrage from the community. A group of students held a protest yesterday. The protestors also circulated a petition criticizing MIT that received 100–200 signatures.

“The statement was drafted in a consultation among colleagues who gathered to review the information we had on the incident,” MIT Chancellor Phillip L. Clay PhD ’75 said in an e-mail to The Tech Friday. “We prepared a statement after we discussed what our responsibilities are to the public regarding the incident.”

Clay said that MIT had not spoken with Simpson before issuing the statement.

Clay said that MIT considers Simpson’s actions to be “reckless,” because taking the reported items to an airport could reasonably be foreseen to cause alarm. “We all have a responsibility not to cause alarm and to be mindful of security requirements.”

MIT Police Chief John DiFava likewise said that “reckless” was “not a word that’s inappropriate.” DiFava was the interim public safety director of Logan International Airport for two months immediately following Sept. 11, 2001.

The possibility of a suicide bomber “requires a significant and serious response,” DiFava said. Machine guns are “standard equipment down at Logan,” said DiFava, adding that machine guns are commonly seen at airports overseas. “There was a female party with a device wired on her body and a glob … a substance that looks like C-4, C-5, or Semtex [plastic explosives]. … To have guns drawn, I don’t have a problem with that.”

DiFava said that he was not at the scene and did not want to second-guess the officers that were there. However, “we don’t know what the witness saw … what kind of a description she gave the police,” DiFava said. “Eyewitnesses are notoriously inaccurate. … We don’t know the details.”

“Still,” DiFava continued, “of all places, an airport; of all airports, Logan. … Logan even confiscates water bottles.” The two planes that struck the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 departed from Logan, and American Airlines Flight 63 was diverted to the airport on Dec. 21, 2001 after Richard Reid attempted to blow up the plane using explosives concealed in his shoe.

Dwyer said that he believes the police have a protocol they must follow and that these days there is “no opportunity for the exercise of discretion.” Dwyer said that prior to 9/11, he believes no arrest would have been made in this case.

Students who are arrested in Boston are instructed in the student-produced How to Get Around MIT guide to call the MIT Police. DiFava said that the police would help any students arrested by contacting deans and family members.

Clay said that MIT provides referrals to lawyers, and did so in the Simpson case, but MIT’s General Counsel Office does not provide legal counsel to members of the community in private or criminal matters. “In general, we advise students to consult with their families and seek legal counsel,” Clay said.

Marissa Vogt, Michael McGraw-Herdeg, Austin Chu, and Nick Semenkovich contributed to the reporting of this article.