A man whose Far West Side Madison apartment became a hazardous materials site after police and firefighters last year found it filled with chemical experiments and two small improvised explosives was sentenced Monday to two years in prison.
Dane County Circuit Judge Susan Crawford told Brian Campbell, 31, now of Carol Stream, Illinois, that while prosecutors presented no evidence to support their claim that Campbell was plotting a bomb attack on a public building, Campbell had offered no credible explanation for his experiments that endangered people in his apartment building on Timber Lake Trail.
“What we don’t know is why,” Crawford said. “Why was he teaching himself to isolate chemicals used in improvised explosives? We don’t know that. But we know that these activities placed his neighbors at great risk.”
In a pre-sentence report, written by a state Department of Corrections agent, Campbell said he simply forgot about safety.
“That’s not an adequate explanation,” Crawford said. It also wasn’t an impulsive activity, she noted, but one that went on for weeks and months and had resulted in a prior order by apartment managers to clean up his apartment or be evicted.
Campbell pleaded no contest in January to second-degree reckless endangerment and possession of improvised explosives. His sentencing was to take place in February but was delayed when Crawford instead ordered the pre-sentence investigation after Assistant District Attorney John Rice submitted a strongly worded sentencing memorandum that painted Campbell as a danger to society.
In February 2018, residents of the building reported a strong smell, which led to the discovery of a makeshift laboratory in Campbell’s apartment, and an extensive array of chemicals in the apartment and in Campbell’s garage. It forced the evacuation of the building for several days.
The building’s owner sued Campbell in small claims court and won a default judgment of about $48,000. The highest-ticket expenses, according to court documents, were the Madison Fire Department Hazardous Materials response, which cost more than $20,000, and decontamination of the building, costing nearly $16,000.
Campbell urged Crawford not to send him to prison because he has a job and is working to pay back what he owes his former landlords. He also told Crawford that he deeply regrets his actions and said, “I never want to return to the headspace I was in.”
“Despite the assertions that were made by the state, truly my desire was to never hurt anyone with the experimentation that I was doing,” Campbell said.
He said he understands the reaction, given some emails he sent over the years, described at one point by Campbell’s attorney, Sarah Schmeiser, as “pedantic” and containing violent-sounding reactions to some things. But since his release from jail after his arrest, Campbell said, he has worked to “change the way I think and the way I approach things, specifically actions or situations I find difficult or upsetting.”
Rice asked for a sentence of three years in prison and eight years of extended supervision. He argued in the sentencing memorandum that Campbell was plotting a bomb attack on the UW-Madison campus, and drew comparisons between Campbell and infamous domestic terrorists Timothy McVeigh and Ted Kaczynski.
“The question is, what was the end game?” Rice asked in court Monday. “When would this have really ended, and how?”
Schmeiser asked for probation of about five years. She said the improvised explosives that Campbell made were about the size of a firecracker, nowhere near what would have been needed to do any real damage, and certainly nowhere near the size and scale of anything McVeigh did.
The state, Schmeiser said, argued for Campbell’s sentence based on the fear of what might have been, rather than the facts.
But while Crawford agreed that the prosecution overstated what Campbell was doing, she said the public still should be protected from whatever it was “that caused you to go down this path.”