Erik Ortiz, Keith Wagstaff and Sophia Rosenbaum
December 18, 2013
The Harvard student accused of emailing a bogus bomb threat to dodge a final exam was “under a great deal of pressure,” his attorney said Wednesday after he was freed on a $100,000 bond.
Eldo Kim, 20, was released to the custody of his sister, who lives in Massachusetts, and an uncle from North Carolina. A federal judge also banned him from stepping foot on the elite Cambridge campus.
The shackled university sophomore cut a silent, somber figure in Boston federal court, wearing a gray T-shirt and Harvard sweatpants. Monday’s desperate stunt forced an evacuation of four buildings as SWAT teams found no explosives at the school.
Federal public defender Ian Gold said Kim was dealing with finals and the third anniversary of his father’s death, which is this month.
“It’s finals time at Harvard,” Gold said. “In one way, we’re looking at the post-9/11 equivalent of pulling a fire alarm. Certainly I’m not saying the government response was unjustified, but it’s important to keep in mind we’re dealing with a 20-year-old man who was under a great deal of pressure.”
The feds claim Kim sent hoax emails to school officials describing “shrapnel bombs” planted around the school. The warnings were eventually traced through the university’s wireless network back to Kim, according to an affidavit.
The extreme to which he allegedly went to was surprising because flunking such a class — and getting booted from the Ivy League for failing grades — are uncommon, faculty and students told NBC News.
“The courseload was very reasonable,” said Chris O’Brien, a classmate of Kim in the same Politics of American Education course that reportedly prompted the threat.
“I’ve spoken to some of my classmates and everyone’s surprised that this exam would be the one that someone would resort to such desperation over,” O’Brien added.
He said it’s possible the suspected hoaxster simply didn’t prepare. The class’ professor referred questions from NBC News to the university, which in an earlier statement said it was “saddened by the details alleged in the criminal complaint.”
Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz said it’s “very hard” to fail an exam at the school. A dean recently revealed teachers are inflating grades — so much so that the median grade awarded to students is an A-minus.
“It’s very hard to fail a government class,” Dershowitz added. “You know, you can get a ‘C,’ but it’s very hard to get a ‘D’ at Harvard with grade inflation. I doubt that anyone who got into Harvard would fail a government exam.”
Students who have the goods to get into the school are probably already equipped to handle the rigorous academic environment, he added.
“Sometimes people come to Harvard with major problems,” Dershowitz said. “It’s not like Harvard causes them.”
Bev Taylor, founder of Ivy Coach, a private college counseling firm, echoed the idea that while it’s hard to get into Harvard, it may be even harder to flunk out.
She said the bomb threat is more complicated than a student simply trying to avoid a test.
“It’s all the stress and the panic that goes into this,” Taylor said. “Maybe he wasn’t prepared for his final. Maybe he wasn’t going to get his ‘A,’ and that was going to have an impact on his life, how his parents would react.”
Friends described Kim to the school newspaper as studious and bright, and were surprised by the allegations.
Kim “has been a supportive influence for a lot of people, myself included,” Edward Cho told The Harvard Crimson, adding that he is a “pretty nice guy.”
Kim describes himself as a fan of cult films in online bios. He graduated from high school in Mukilteo, Wash., and built up his college resume tutoring students in math, playing the viola and writing a first-place essay about genocide for the U.S. Institute of Peace.
He also traveled to his native South Korea to intern for a newspaper in Seoul, according to his LinkedIn account that has since been taken down. He is a naturalized U.S. citizen, and his mother reportedly lives in South Korea.
At Harvard, he wrote for the weekly Harvard Independent and was a board member for Eleganza, the school’s fashion show. He was concentrating on psychology and sociology, his profile said.
If convicted of the hoax, he faces up to five years in prison, three years supervised release and a $250,000 fine.
Following Monday’s bomb threat, students in Kim’s Politics of American Education class were given a take-home exam, which must be completed by Friday, O’Brien said.
“We’re wondering why someone would choose to do something that would get you expelled over failing one test,” he added. “Why would you choose the greater of two evils?”
NBC News’ Matthew DeLuca and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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