tampabay.com

For USF students, a big boom turns into a bust

Boredom becomes a whole lot more when the two find themselves handcuffed - and in jail.

By ALEXANDRA ZAYAS
Published April 27, 2007


TAMPA - The idea was born out of boredom, after a sweaty Saturday game of Frisbee at the University of South Florida on March 31.

Freshmen Anthony Shortt, Sarah Claussen and two friends would construct what they called bottle rockets out of plastic soda bottles, water and dry ice.

They'd take them out to the grassy quad, cap them, and watch the carbon dioxide pressure build and pop the bottle, producing a loud boom.

The 19-year-olds had no idea the stunt would cost them a night in jail, eviction from their dorms, suspension from school and a possible five years in prison.

- - -

The first boom was louder than they expected. It resounded off the walls of the residence halls surrounding the quad.

The second bottle was taking its time. Bored, the girls went inside. Shortt and his friend stayed outside, babysitting the second bottle so passers-by wouldn't get scared by the boom or walk too close. As they waited, police arrived, asking questions.

"I made it," Shortt said.

Out came the handcuffs.

From the dorms, Sarah Claussen watched her boyfriend get cuffed and ran outside.

"I was with him," she said. She was cuffed, too.

Shortt tried to explain that water rockets are noisy but not dangerous, that not even the grass was hurt. Police called them dry ice bombs and arrested both students, who admitted the prank on a charge of detonating a destructive device, a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison.

- - -

Shortt is an architecture major who pulls all-nighters to maintain his 3.2 grade point average. Claussen is an aspiring journalist who got straight A's last semester. Neither had ever been arrested.

"We understand we made a mistake," Claussen said. "What we did was not going to hurt anybody."

In the context of this case, opinions differ on whether a dry ice device could have caused destruction.

"In a smaller area, it could have," said USF police Lt. Meg Ross. She stands by the charge, and says an officer's ears were ringing for hours after the bang.

Jose Barreiro, the students' attorney, says police overreacted. "It wasn't intended as a weapon in a malicious event," he said. "It doesn't have a bomb quality even though it is called a dry ice bomb. The device is a glorified version of blowing up a paper bag and smacking it."

Bert Rubini, a chemistry professor at Hillsborough Community College, said they can be destructive within a few feet, comparable to a large firecracker.

But Gary Ensmenger, who sells water rocket kits to teachers on his Web site h2orocket.com, said that given enough space, the rockets are harmless.

"Basically, it's just water and air," Ensmenger said. "There are a lot of ways of making a soda bottle explode. Nowadays, they're too sensitive about that stuff."

- - -

"I'm just a college student that got bored and made a bottle go pop," Shortt said from a new off-campus apartment. Now, he's a year behind on his degree and struggling to pass this semester.

Claussen fears for her future. "I just hope that the court does not decide to take away my youth for a dumb stunt I pulled as a freshman," she said.

The State Attorney's Office has not yet decided whether to prosecute the case. Barreiro doesn't think the students will go to jail.

Even if they're not convicted, Claussen's and Shortt's mug shots will remain on the Sheriff's Office Web site for years to come.

Claussen said a warning would have been enough to keep them from doing it again.

"We learned our lesson," Claussen said. "We didn't need all these other repercussions."

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at 813 226-3354 or azayas@sptimes.com.