Thermo nuclear? Fired UVA scientist "targets" officials

Charles A. Bly celebrated his 52nd birthday in jail. The former UVA employee and doctoral candidate was arrested January 8 for writing a 10-page letter to UVA general counsel Paul Forch that included five targets with bullet holes in them.

Bly also sent the allegedly threatening letter to 46 other people, including the FBI, Virginia's Senators John Warner and George Allen, Governor Mark Warner, and members of UVA's Board of Visitors.

In court January 12, U.S. Magistrate Judge Waugh Crigler denied bond until Bly has been examined by a mental health expert and 10 shotguns, 20 or so rifles, three pistols, and two or three revolvers are removed from Bly's Mountainwood Road residence.

From 1994 until his termination from the program in May 2002, Bly was a PhD candidate in UVA's nuclear engineering program, according to the affidavit for his arrest warrant.

"Mr. Bly feels as if some of the research he did was stolen, essentially plagiarized," FBI Special Agent James Lamb testifies at the bond hearing.

Bly hired an attorney to negotiate a settlement with the university, and when that failed, tried to settle matters himself through emails with various UVA officials, including Forch. Late last year, Bly showed up unannounced at the university attorney's office in Madison Hall in an unsuccessful effort to see Forch.

Bly also visited with the FBI on November 28. "He felt there was a civil rights violation," says Lamb, who testified that Bly asked, "Do I need to put a bullet in someone's head to get some attention?"

By the time Forch received Bly's letter on January 6, the FBI felt there was enough evidence of a threat to arrest Bly for knowingly mailing threatening communications, a felony that carries a maximum five-year penalty and/or fine.

In the letter, Bly admonishes the list of recipients to "please show the necessary courage to endorse liberty and justice for all. If this remains class warfare, I assure you of tragic consequences."

He complains that Forch tried to "bait" him into a "continued meaningless exchange among lawyers," then writes: "[B]ullets are far cheaper and more decisive. A person with my meager means and abilities can stand at a distance of two football fields and end elements of a longstanding dispute with the twitch of my index finger."

Bly parenthetically instructs Forch to "see the attached target practice that gives evidence of a talent I possess for gun control hitting the target."

And he writes, "These comments are not to be interpreted as illegal brandishing of a firearm, blackmail, or extortion."

The disclaimer didn't work. Perhaps it was the note Bly attached to the targets describing them as "testimony to my ability with small-bore and high-power rifles."

And Judge Crigler mentions a part in the letter where Bly describes "the Oswald incident with Kennedy."

Bly's attorney, Will Spaulding (who has written for The Hook), calls his client "probably one of the most nonviolent persons I've ever met.

"He did his level best to disclaim expressly any intent to threaten another individual," says Spaulding, "and yet to make his point as forcefully as possible."

In court, Spaulding points out that Bly's dispute with UVA has been ongoing since 1996, and that UVA had never served him with a no-trespass notice.

Bly, wearing a Charlottesville-Albemarle Regional Jail's black-and-white striped uniform that had faded into more of a dingy gray stripe, told the judge that he's employed on the graveyard shift at Continental Teves in Culpeper, where he mills auto parts.

He's also worked at Westinghouse, Beaver Valley Nuclear Power Station, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory. During the late '70s and early '80s, Bly paid for his bachelor's and master's degrees as a senior reactor operator at UVA's nuclear reactor. He also worked there when he returned to Charlottesville to work on his PhD.

When Bly started to describe what he did at the UVA reactor, Judge Crigler said, "You're going to lose me real quick. Just answer your lawyer's questions."

A lifelong National Rifle Association member, Bly denies that the guns he owns were purchased in connection with his dispute with UVA. He says some are collector's items, and he told the judge he was willing to remove them from his residence to obtain bail.

Probation officer Mike Sheffield recommended to the judge that Bly be detained until he received mental health treatment.

Spaulding argued that Bly is a law-abiding citizen with no history of mental hospitalization and requested that Bly be released on personal recognizance. "Some in physics could be called eccentric," said Spaulding. "There's no demonstrable link between eccentricity and mental illness."

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Heaphy found Bly's lack of a mental-health history troubling, because it makes the letter "a rational choice."

He found "extreme frustration" in Bly. "You can see that in the letter," said Heaphy. That frustration, Bly's "history of threats," and the wide availability of guns are a "recipe for disaster," Heaphy noted. "We think the risk too great."

Spaulding tried to convince the judge of Bly's regret at "any misunderstanding from the letters," and he claimed that the mention of bullets was used in a rhetorical sense.

The judge didn't buy that argument, and he wondered whether the letter was Bly's "breaking point or his next-to-last breaking point.

"I would consider bail only after a mental health consultation," Crigler ruled, inviting Bly back after an evaluation.

And of course, it goes without saying that should Bly make bail, target practice will be out of the question for a long, long time.

Five bullet-ridden targets enclosed in Charles Bly's letter to a UVA official helped land him in jail.