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Freshmen Punished for Stealing Uranium

By Jacob Hill

Columbia University this week disciplined two freshmen who stole a number of dangerous chemicals, including depleted Uranium 238, from a storage area in the basement of a university physics laboratory.

Kenneth Hechtman and Jeff Bankoff, both members of an unofficial student group dedicated to "anarchy and destruction," said they used the chemicals in experiments conducted in Carman Hall, Columbia's largest freshman dorm.

Hechtman said that he and Bankoff stole the chemicals while on a late-night exploration of the university's tunnel network in early December. He said they entered a basement storage area in the Pupin physics building and discovered a number of chemicals on shelves.

"There were no locked doors between the outside and the lab and [there were] several ways of getting into it," Hechtman told The Columbia Spectator.

The area beneath the lab was undergoing construction at the time and was not locked, as it usually is, said Fred Knubel, Columbia's director of public information.

Hechtman and Bankoff carried away a number of chemicals--uranium, chlorophorm, mercury, caffeine, and nitric acid, among others--that Hechtman used in experiments in his room.

Depleted Uranium 238, the type of uranium the students stole, is unlike Uranium 235 because it cannot cause a nuclear reaction and is dangerous only in very large amounts, said Harvard Professor of Physics Bertrand I. Halperin.

University officials suspended Hechtman, a student in the faculty of arts and sciences, for a year. They placed him on three years probation and denied him university housing, and required that he reapply for admission into Columbia.

Hechtman left the university last week for his home city, Montreal, where he said he will attend Vanier College. He said he will not return to Columbia.

Engineering student Bankoff was originally expelled from student housing. But he appealed the decision, and received three years disciplinary probation and a dorm warning. He said yesterday that he will remain at the university.

Federal and local government agencies, including the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, have decided to discontinue investigation of the theft because they have found that the chemicals posed no immediate health hazard, Knubel said.

University officials became aware of the incident two weeks ago when students reported that Hechtman was experimenting with radioactive materials. Authorities from the university Office of Environmental Safety searched the room and discovered a number of bottled chemicals, including one labeled "Depleted Uranium Powder--25 Grams."

But because Uranium 238 is generally innocuous, the greatest source of radiation in Hechtman's room turned out to be his roommate's alarm clock, Bankoff said.

Because Hechtman and Bankoff were in Boston two weekends ago, the university confiscated the chemicals and sealed the room. Upon their return the two were questioned by university officials and had to appear in front of university disciplinary bodies.

Both have said they are members of an unrecognized campus organization the Allied Destructive Hackers of Columbia, commonly known as ADHOC. Hechtman, who said he is the unofficial leader of ADHOC, said that the group regularly ventured into forbidden areas to have fun.

In his disciplinary hearing, Hechtman was also charged with stealing a dormitory bathroom door, threatening a school official, and painting graffiti on a university ambulance.

Hechtman denied all three of the additional charges, and refused to divulge the names of the people responsible for two of the offenses, which he said he knew. Hechtman said that he was treated unfairly as a result.

In an open letter to the Spectator, Hechtman stated: "I won't be here to kick around any more...They threw up a whole bunch of shit, some of which I did, most of which I didn't."

"The actual disciplinary hearing was a screw job," he added in the letter. University officials refused comment on any aspect of the disciplinary hearings.

Bankoff said that Hechtman "had far more nefarious intentions" than he did.

In his open letter, Hechtman addressed Bankoff: "No regrets. It was fun, it was worth it."

He also wrote, addressing his roommate, whom he said cooperated with police investigation efforts: "I hope you get cancer from your alarm clock."

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