Troopers arrested an MIT student at gunpoint Friday after she walked into Logan International Airport wearing a computer circuit board and wiring on her sweatshirt. Authorities call it a fake bomb; she called it art.
Star Simpson’s attorney said the charges against her were an overreaction, but authorities expressed amazement that someone would wear such a device eight months after a similar scare in Boston, and six years after two of the jets hijacked in the Sept. 11 attacks took off from Logan.
“I’m shocked and appalled that somebody would wear this type of device to an airport,” said State Police Maj. Scott Pare, the airport’s commanding officer.
The terminal was not evacuated and flights were not affected, airport officials said.
Woman praised for robotics work
Simpson, 19, of Hawaii, has expertise in electronics and even received a Congressional citation for her work in robotics, according to her lawyer.
She wore the white circuit board on her chest over a black hooded sweatshirt, Pare said at a news conference. The battery-powered rectangular device had nine flashing lights, and Simpson had Play-Doh in her hands, he said.
Two phrases that looked hand-drawn — “Socket to me” and “Course VI” — were written on the back of Simpson’s sweatshirt, which authorities displayed to the media. Course VI appears to refer to MIT’s major of electrical engineering and computer science.
“She said that it was a piece of art and she wanted to stand out on career day,” Pare said.
There was a career fair at the university on Thursday, according to the university’s Web site.
Students gives not guilty plea
Simpson was charged with possessing a hoax device. A not guilty plea was entered for her and she was released on $750 bail.
During the hearing, Simpson smiled as she entered wearing a T-shirt and sandals. After she posted bail, she left in a taxi with a man who identified himself as her boyfriend, but neither would answer more questions from reporters.
Prosecutor Wayne Margolis had requested $5,000 bail, saying Simpson showed a total disregard for airport security concerns.
Ross Schreiber, who was appointed to represent Simpson, said she was not a risk to flee, cooperated with authorities and was a good student with no prior convictions. He said they would fight the charges.
“I would characterize it as almost being paranoid at this point,” he said of authorities’ response.
He said she had gone to the airport to meet her boyfriend. “She was there for legitimate purposes,” Schreiber said.
Woman followed police orders
Simpson was arrested about 8 a.m. outside Terminal C, home to United Airlines, Jet Blue and other carriers.
A Massachusetts Port Authority staffer manning an information booth in the terminal became suspicious when Simpson — wearing the device — approached to ask about an incoming flight, Pare said. Simpson then walked outside, and the staffer notified a nearby trooper.
The trooper, joined by others with submachine guns, confronted her at a traffic island in front of the terminal.
“She was immediately told to stop, to raise her hands and not to make any movement, so we could observe all her movements to see if she was trying to trip any type of device,” Pare said. “Had she not followed the protocol, we might have used deadly force.”
He added, “She’s lucky to be in a cell as opposed to the morgue.”
Pare said Simpson had taken a subway to the airport, but he was not sure if she had the device on at that time.
Past security scare
Boston was the focus of a security scare Jan. 31 when dozens of battery-powered devices that featured a character making an obscene gesture with a finger were discovered in various locations. Bomb squads were deployed and some transportation links were closed temporarily. They turned out to be a promotion for the Cartoon Network. Two men were charged in that incident, but prosecutors dropped the charges after they apologized and performed community service.
Simpson was a member of MIT’s swimming and diving team in 2006, according to the team’s Web site, which lists her hometown as Kihei, Hawaii.
She is the secretary of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Electrical Research Society, her lawyer said. She is a graduate of the Hawaii Preparatory Academy, a private boarding school, has won school prizes for chemistry and leadership and had received a Congressional citation for her work in robotics, Schreiber said.
MIT issued a statement saying the school is cooperating with authorities. The statement said: “As reported to us by authorities, Ms. Simpson’s actions were reckless and understandably created alarm at the airport.”
Pare praised the booth attendant and said the incident is a reminder of the terrorism threat confronting the civil aviation system.
“In this day and age, the threat continues to be there,” he said.