When a Northeastern University employee called 911 last month to report he had been injured by the explosion of a pressurized storage case, the apparent attack seemed motivated by fear of technology.
The incident took place at the Immersive Media Lab, and a rambling typewritten letter found at the scene by the employee, Jason Duhaime, referred to robots walking around college campuses and accused the university of working with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
But Duhaime’s account quickly unraveled, federal prosecutors alleged Tuesday. His injuries were superficial. He said the letter came from inside the exploding case, but it was found neatly folded and undamaged. Investigators later found a “word-for-word, electronic copy” of the letter stored in a backup folder on his computer, according to an FBI affidavit.
Duhaime, 45, was arrested Tuesday in Texas for allegedly staging the incident and will return to Massachusetts to face criminal charges related to the alleged hoax, prosecutors said.
“This alleged conduct is disturbing to say the least,” US Attorney Rachael Rollins said at a news conference. “Our city, more than most, knows all too well that a report or threat of an explosion is a very serious matter and necessitates an immediate and significant law enforcement response, given the potential devastation that can ensue.”
Duhaime, who vigorously denied staging the explosion in a previous interview with the Globe, was apprehended in the western district of Texas, where he had been living with his girlfriend after a divorce from his wife in 2020, records show. According to investigators, he was traveling to Texas “every two or three weeks” and sleeping in the lab or in his office whenever he was in Massachusetts. At the time of the Sept. 13 incident, he had worked as the New Technology manager and director of the Immersive Media Lab for roughly eight years, but the school said Tuesday that he no longer works at the university.
A Northeastern student employed by the lab was also present when Duhaime called 911, and his account to investigators contradicted Duhaime’s version of events.
Duhaime initially told police he was injured by sharp objects that flew out of the plastic case when he opened it inside the lab, where he had an office, according to the affidavit. He repeated the claim to investigators while being treated at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
“And as soon as I opened it up, all this energy and, like, these things come flying out,” he told authorities, according to the affidavit. “And I had a long sleeve shirt, and they flew up underneath, basically, and hit my arm. The case went up and then it came down.”
But investigators found no evidence of an explosion: “no small or sharp objects” were found in the case, or anywhere in the lab, according to the affidavit, and there was “no physical damage” to the case, Duhaime’s shirt, or the letter itself.
“The inside and outside of the case did not bear any marks, dents, cracks, holes, or other signs that it had been exposed to a forceful or explosive discharge of any type or magnitude,” the affidavit said.
Duhaime also told an agent from the Joint Terrorism Task Force that he first saw the case in one of the campus mailrooms on Sept. 12, the affidavit said. However, a search of Duhaime’s office computer revealed an exact copy of the letter, with a time stamp indicating it was not created until the following day, Sept. 13.
“The letter could not have been placed inside the subject case on September 12th,” investigators wrote, leading them to conclude that Duhaime authored the letter.
The Northeastern student present in the lab at the time of the alleged explosion told investigators he watched Duhaime enter the closet, yell, and then immediately exit the closet. The student “did not hear any noises coming from inside the closet other than Duhaime’s voice,” the affidavit said.
After Duhaime called 911, police descended on the campus, including two bomb squads, and multiple buildings were evacuated. The next day, law enforcement officials told the Globe they were skeptical about his version of events because of inconsistencies in his story. In an interview with the Globe, Duhaime said, “I did not stage this, in no way shape or form.”
“They need to catch the guy that did this,” he said. “It’s a very traumatic thing that has occurred so [I’m] shaken up. . . . I’m not doing so good.”
Duhaime is charged with conveying false information and hoaxes related to an explosive device and making material false statements to an executive branch of the US government, according to legal filings in US District Court in Boston. It wasn’t immediately clear when he will appear in court.
In a statement, Northeastern officials thanked the law enforcement agencies involved in the case.
“Knowing what we know now about this incident, we would like to make it clear that there was never any danger to the Northeastern community,” the statement said.
A Northeastern student who worked with Duhaime in the virtual reality center for roughly a year told the Globe Tuesday that Duhaime seemed “perfectly normal” and that he and his friends were initially shocked by the arrest.
“We were all like, ‘Jason’s gone now, I guess,’ ” said the student, a game design and computer science major, who asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to speak. The student added that members of the university’s virtual reality club initially wanted to give Duhaime “the benefit of the doubt.”
“No one really expected him to do that, and . . . [we thought] maybe he was stressed,” the student said. But “it seems like there’s pretty conclusive evidence. I mean, the letter was on his computer.”
Another Northeastern student, Kunal Wagle, said that he wasn’t surprised by the allegations, but that they did provide some comfort.
“I guess I do feel better that there hasn’t been an actual explosion so there’s not that kind of danger” said Wagle, 20. “I think it’s disappointing that someone would do that, but at the end of the day you can’t really control what someone will do.”
For Leon Jones III, however, news of the apparent hoax was far from a relief.
“I don’t think that it being a hoax, for me, makes it any better,” said Jones, 22, who recalled how afraid he was initially that someone was “out to get Northeastern students.”
Duhaime “caused all this fear for something that was not [real], but very well could have happened,” the media advocacy graduate student said. “It’s not unthinkable.”
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