By Marlena Hartz
Joshua Gilpin turned his Portales kitchen into a makeshift laboratory last November.
The Eastern New Mexico University graduate student took three chemical solvents from the university lab, driven by a yen to complete his thesis. The chemistry student wanted to clone a protein, he said.
Aware taking chemicals from the lab was taboo, Gilpin proceeded.
“I was doing my homework. … I was crunched for time,” said Gilpin, 29. “I work between the lab, my home, and the library. Those are the three places I bounce around.”
When police arrived on Gilpin’s doorstep, they did so not because they were searching for chemicals, but because they received a tip that Gilpin was suicidal, according to police records.
Police confiscated a rifle, a box of ammunition, and two marijuana plants from his Portales apartment, according to police reports.
Gilpin’s world then imploded.
A day after he was released from police custody, Gilpin was booked again at the Roosevelt County Detention Center after a bomb squad and local police combed through the chemistry lab at Eastern and discovered three metal cans containing red phosphorous, sulfur and potassium nitrate. A professor reported spotting the “suspicious” cans in the lab earlier that morning.
Gilpin admits the chemicals — which, if combined, could be used to build an explosive device — belong to him.
But the Minnesota native said he never intended to commit suicide, nor did he intend to bomb ENMU.
Police and prosecutors have declined to comment on the case, which went to trial last month. Gilpin was sentenced to 18 months of probation for two misdemeanors, larceny and tampering with evidence, and one felony, possession of an explosive or incendiary device, Gilpin said. In accordance with his plea bargain, the charges against him will be dropped if he complies with the tenets of his probation, he said.
An official from the 9th Judicial District office in Portales said Tuesday court documents on Gilpin could not be released because they hadn’t been signed by the judge.
Gilpin talked about his arrest with the Freedom Newspapers for the first time this week.
“Why would I try to burn my work?,” he said from his Portales home, in a telephone interview.
“What they thought was a bomb, was my chemistry set.”
“Yes,” Gilpin said, “it could be misconstrued into being made into a bomb. But (the chemicals) were not mixed; they were not in the right ratios; they were stored in airtight containers,” he said.
Gilpin’s former ENMU professor, Newton Hilliard, said he has minimal information about Gilpin’s case.
“The courts and the university kept me out of the loop,” said Hilliard, who would not comment on Gilpin as a student, bound “unfortunately,” he said, by privacy laws.
Gilpin spent five weeks behind bars in Portales, he said. In December, his father posted a $15,000 cash bond and Gilpin was freed, he said.
Probation is a relatively light sentence, some law officials told Gilpin. But there is another, much heavier sentence — Gilpin’s university studies and a lucrative career in chemistry are marred, he said.
“I have nothing,” said Gilpin, who said he is contemplating joining the military. “My life has been obliterated.”
Gilpin no longer attends ENMU. Rather than face expulsion, he said he signed a paper admitting guilt in the incident, thus protecting his right to attend a graduate program elsewhere. Under court orders, he is not to contact anyone at ENMU.
He is uncertain another university would ever open its doors to him again.
“Some days, I feel like nobody will take me back. Other days, I feel like my thesis is good enough that anybody would take me back,” Gilpin said.
Hilliard said he also is not sure if Gilpin has a good chance of attending another university.
“Twenty years ago, I probably would have been able to answer that question,” he said. “These days, with Homeland Security, I have no idea.”
Regardless of where it will lead him, Gilpin spends his days and nights pouring over scientific literature and pondering the lush potential of chemistry in the real world — in cloning.
Hanging onto the world of chemistry, he said, is the only thing he can do to keep “his piece of mind.”
Currently unemployed, Gilpin said if his probation can be transferred to Minnesota, he will likely work with his father as a plumber.