Unknown suspect swindles U chemistry professor

Justin Horwath

University chemistry professor Wayland Noland said, “to put it bluntly, I was conned.”

He calls himself a generous man when it comes to charitable donations to the University.

Yet the suspect, who University police said is still at large, was savvy enough to convince Noland to give him $37, allegedly for a bus pass to get to job training in Eagan.

The man also took a chemistry book, worth $150, from Noland’s office, according to a police report, which states he visited the office four times last week.

University police said Sunday the case is inactive pending further leads.

Noland was not in his office when the man took the chemistry book. However, he said the man told Noland’s research assistant Mike Perbix that he had permission from Noland to take the book.

Perbix, who called Noland “street-smart,” said the suspect was pretty annoying, for the most part.

“He was kind of snoopy, looking around at all of the chemicals, and remarking at how odd they sounded,” he said. “It looked like he was fascinated with the book, and he wanted to look at it and read it a little bit.”

The next day Perbix was in the office, talking about the missing book with two colleagues, when the man came in and admitted to taking the book, claiming that Noland gave him permission via e-mail to hold onto it for the summer.

“What tipped us off was that Dr. Noland doesn’t have that much faith in technology,” Perbix said. “He doesn’t reply to e-mails.”

Perbix said he knew the suspect had lied 10 seconds later when they checked Noland’s e-mail. Noland has been teaching at the University since 1952.

Nick Anderson, a research specialist who also works with Noland, said the whole situation was unusual because nobody knew who the man was.

“Then he would make just about daily appearances and show up with bizarre stories,” he said.

Perbix filed a suspicious person’s report with the Minneapolis Police Department on Thursday and said Saturday that he hasn’t seen the suspect since.

“He sounded very genuine and sincere,” Noland said. “He sort of acts like he’s seen me forever. He was a very good con artist; let’s put it that way.”

University police Lt. Chuck Miner said a swindle occurs generally when money “is not used for the intent or purpose” for which the perpetrator claims he or she will use it.

He said the department has been getting “quite a few calls” from people who are flagged down by someone who says his or her car is impounded or has run out of gas.

“It’s just a ploy that people come up with that attracts the generosity of people,” he said, adding that this case has a little more of a story than a typical panhandler.

Witnesses said they had spotted the man milling around Noland’s office as early as June 14. He told students he had been one of Noland’s general chemistry students in the ’80s, Noland said.

“The stories that he said about himself were plausible until he started telling things to my students that were not true,” Noland said. “I never taught general chemistry.”

An e-mail sent to Noland from Michelle Driessen, an associate education specialist in the chemistry department, said the man approached Driessen and inquired about courses in the department, Noland said.

“He seems like a nice guy that is working hard to better his situation,” wrote Driessen in the e-mail, Noland said.

Witnesses spotted the man several times since the date of the e-mail. Anderson agreed to help the man fix his bike.

Anderson said he was surprised the man managed to pry $37 out of Noland, because although the professor, who has taught more than 12,000 students in his lectures, is “benevolent,” he usually keeps a tight eye on his money.

“If you buy a two-cent stamp from him, he’ll expect two pennies,” he said.

The report describes the suspect as a black male between 30 and 40 years old with a medium build and very short hair. It says he has a “weathered, pockmarked face,” and wore a T-shirt and jeans when he swindled Noland for cash.

“He seemed to know a lot about our operation,” Noland said. “It’s sort of a lesson in intending to do a good deed – you run into somebody that takes advantage of you.”