The mess in Room 304: ‘Breaking Bad’ at Henderson State

Credit: Layet Johnson

Late one October night in 2019, Joseph Andrews and three other Henderson State University students were studying in the chemistry department of the Arkadelphia campus when Andrews became sick. 

“I started to fill [sic] a pain in my chest, and my arm felt numb,” he recalled in an affidavit given to police the next day. “I asked the other guys if they felt bad, [and] they said that they could smell something. I started to taste/smell iron, so I thought that I was bleeding but I was not.”

About 9:30 p.m., the four began searching for the source of the odor, which another student described in his statement as being “v. sweet [and] v. pungent.” The students made their way toward a lab used by two chemistry professors, Terry David Bateman and Bradley Rowland.

“I had to stop at the end of the hallway due to overwhelming sickness,” Andrews wrote. He fled the building, the Reynolds Science Center, and the students contacted the two professors. Rowland arrived first, followed by Bateman about five minutes later.

Fifteen to 20 minutes later, Rowland told the students the problem was an open bottle and that he had “fixed or capped it,” Andrews said. Student David Thompson recalled in his statement that Rowland said the chemical was a substance called benzyl chloride and that “it was all good now.”

It wasn’t.

The university, which serves some 3,500 students, was still reeling from the recent revelation that it was millions of dollars in debt. The financial crisis had forced its president, Glen Jones, out of office and would soon lead to the school’s merger into the Arkansas State University System. Now, a drug scandal right out of television’s “Breaking Bad” was about to bring more bad publicity to the small South Arkansas campus. Moreover, other faculty had alerted the Henderson administration to the possibility of illegal activity in the chemistry lab some 10 months earlier, according to documents reviewed by the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network.

The morning after the spill, Tuesday, Oct. 8, classes began as usual in the Reynolds building. But students soon knew something was wrong.

One student, a biochemistry major who has since graduated, said he arrived for his 8 a.m. class to find a chemical smell permeating the building.

“Imagine something akin to an Expo marker but times a thousand,” said the student, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “I had safety concerns. I was talking to my friends before class, and I was like, ‘I don’t want to be breathing this in.’”

Still, classes continued until midday.

Around lunchtime, two employees called the university’s police chief, Johnny Campbell, to report the strong odor. When Campbell got to the building, people were complaining of watery eyes and nose and throat irritation. He immediately evacuated the building and locked it down, room by room.

The law enforcement and emergency response presence quickly expanded to include the Clark County Sheriff’s Office, the Arkadelphia Fire Department, the Arkansas State Police, a chemist from the Arkansas State Crime Laboratory, and even a civil support team from the Arkansas National Guard. The Guard team was called in from Camp Robinson in North Little Rock to help police identify the chemicals spilled and to determine any potential dangers to the campus.

All classes in the building were canceled and later moved to other locations. Teachers couldn’t get into the science center for laptops or other materials. Instruction was disrupted for weeks.

“Please continue to make sure the building is completely secure and no unauthorized people get access,” Elaine Kneebone, the school’s acting president, wrote in an Oct. 10 email to the school’s provost and the chair of the chemistry department.

Three days after the spill, Henderson placed Rowland, now 41, and Bateman, 46, on paid administrative leave. A month later, law enforcement confirmed the rumors swirling on campus. 

According to a Nov. 15, 2019, affidavit from Clark County Sheriff Jason Watson, the state crime lab found both methamphetamine and a controlled substance called phenyl-2-propanone, or P2P, in multiple samples taken from the lab where the spill occurred, Room 304 of the Reynolds building. P2P is the penultimate chemical step in a common technique used to manufacture meth.

Bradley Rowland (left) and Terry David Bateman

Criminal activity aside, the lab was in bad shape, authorities said. A report prepared by the National Guard team noted “open, unlabeled glassware in the sinks and workbenches, most containing some liquid” and “multiple adjoining labs in equal states of disarray.”

On Nov. 15, 2019, the sheriff’s office arrested both men. Bateman resigned Dec. 1. Rowland was fired Jan. 21, 2020. They are scheduled to begin separate trials this fall in Clark County Circuit Court in Arkadelphia; both pleaded innocent to charges of drug possession and manufacturing.

In a recent interview, Bateman’s attorney, Bill James, said he’s not convinced that meth was present in Room 304 and suggested there were “some issues with the testing methods.” After all, he said, “Most meth labs when you test them are in the woods or a trailer,” not a college science lab.

“We deny he was making meth at all,” James said.

Rowland's attorney, Clinton Mathis, declined comment. 

The Reynolds building reopened in part Oct. 29, 2019, and a short time later in full. None of it is closed today, said Jeff Hankins, the ASU System’s vice president for strategic communications and economic development.

Henderson ultimately spent $149,917 to clean and repair the three-story building, which was dedicated in 1999. The private, nonprofit Henderson State University Foundation reimbursed the school for the work, Hankins said. That work included, among other things, washing the walls and floors, running air scrubbers for weeks, ventilating the building and testing indoor air-quality.

Room 304 was entirely gutted. Cabinets, shelves, furniture and equipment were removed and disposed of. It now serves as a storeroom for supplies.

The Reynolds Science Center in October 2019 (Courtesy Larry Massey / The Oracle)

Warning Signs

The October 2019 spill wasn’t the first sign of trouble in the Reynolds Science Center.

Almost a year earlier, on Dec. 10, 2018, Elaine Kneebone, then the university’s general counsel, advised Sheriff Jason Watson that other faculty members had indicated to her that Bateman and Rowland “had recently exhibited marked deviation in their behavior,” according to the court-filed affidavit signed by Watson. 

The changes in the two professors’ “personal hygiene and weight loss” were so “drastic” that the faculty members believed the men were involved in “some type of illegal activity in one of the chemistry laboratories,” Watson wrote. (The affidavit does not identify the faculty who registered the concerns with Kneebone.)

According to the sheriff, “Dr. Bateman and Dr. Rowland were observed by faculty and staff to be present in the laboratory during the late night and very early morning hours, were extremely guarded towards other faculty and students who came into the laboratory, questioned why such other persons were there, and would not allow such other persons out of their sight while in the laboratory.”

On Jan. 4, 2019, after Christmas break, two Clark County sheriff’s officers, one from a narcotics unit, visited the laboratory in Room 304. 

There, they noticed “an “overwhelming odor” that both officers recognized as a controlled substance which is “a precursor chemical often used in the synthesis of amphetamine and/or methamphetamine.” They were referring to P2P, the compound later found in the state crime lab’s analysis. The officers indicated they found no evidence to suggest any other controlled substances had been made in the lab, the sheriff said.

There are multiple ways to synthesize methamphetamine, some of which involve common over-the-counter medication such as Sudafed. The so-called “P2P method,” which generally creates lower-grade methamphetamine, does not require over-the-counter drugs. This was the route used by the meth-cooking protagonist in “Breaking Bad,” high school chemistry teacher Walter White.

Bateman, an associate professor of chemistry, began teaching at Henderson in 2009. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Henderson and his doctoral degree from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, according to a LinkedIn page bearing his name.

Rowland, a Texas native, came to Henderson from Huston-Tillotson University in Austin in 2014. The two professors were co-advisors of the HSU Chemistry Club.

In his first year at Henderson, Rowland gave an interview to The Oracle, the student newspaper, in which he declared his fondness for “Breaking Bad.”

“I thought it was a great show,” Rowland said in 2014. “It was spot on and accurate when it came to the science, and it has gotten a younger, newer generation interested in chemistry. I feel like it was a wonderful recruiting tool.”

The Henderson campus today (Credit: Larry Massey)

A campus in turmoil

Despite law enforcement’s visit to Room 304 in January 2019, the lack of a more conclusive finding apparently marked the end of the Henderson administration’s efforts to pursue the faculty concerns. The school was facing a crisis of a different kind.

In June 2019, Henderson announced a hiring freeze and spending cuts. Officials said the school would end the fiscal year with a budget deficit. Then-President Glen Jones said the main cause was some $4.5 million in unpaid student accounts incurred over the previous year. Student debt owed to the school had ballooned from $3.7 million in the 2013-14 school year to over $10 million in 2018-19. Jones had sought to keep the financial problems quiet, but when his attempts to secure a line of credit fell through, the school was forced to ask the state for help.

A review of emails and other documents obtained from the ASU System under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act turned up no other investigations or disciplinary measures taken against Bateman or Rowland during that time. Asked when Jones was first advised of faculty suspicions regarding the two professors, and for any related written communications, Hankins said, “No responsive documents are available from before the incident.”

Neither the sheriff nor Kneebone returned phone messages seeking comment. Henderson’s police chief, Johnny Campbell, declined comment because he has been subpoenaed as a witness in the case.

The apparent lack of official discussion about what might be happening in the chemistry lab was in keeping with a problematic culture of secrecy among university leadership, said Brown Hardman, a member of Henderson’s former board of trustees. The board was dissolved when the school joined the ASU System on Feb. 1 of this year.

“Things were so opaque, you couldn’t see anything clearly,” Hardman said. ”I would think that if we had been as crystal clear and as open as we could be, that Henderson would not be where it is today.”

When Henderson employees attended board meetings, they weren't usually given an opportunity to speak. The trustees rarely discussed the school’s financial woes publicly, despite budget cuts and growing fears among faculty and staff.

“All the signs were there. Why did this continue?” said Eddie Arnold, another former trustee. Had action been taken earlier, Arnold said, there might not have been a chemical spill.

Jones resigned on July 19, 2019, less than three weeks after he secured a $6 million loan from the state. The Henderson board named Kneebone acting president, and the university entered a new fiscal year saddled with millions of dollars in unpaid student debt, a budget deficit, and the university’s own unpaid bills. The school has since repaid $250,000 of the advance, Hankins said. 

On July 27, 2020, a new interim chancellor was appointed, replacing Kneebone as acting president. She was recently named senior associate general counsel for the ASU System.

Unsafe lab conditions

The drug charges against Bateman and Rowland brought Henderson more of the bad publicity it had tried so hard to shut down, with headlines appearing around the country

EMTEC, a Little Rock-based environmental consulting firm, was hired to do remediation work. Workers removed windows from each floor and set up a ventilation system to flush fresh air into the building. In an Oct. 10, 2019, email to school administrators, EMTEC president John Hatchett described the labs in Room 304 and 310 as being “a complete mess” and noted the difficulty of safely disposing of so many unknown chemicals in unlabeled containers. Hatchett declined to comment for this article.

Reynolds in 2019 during the remediation process (Courtesy Larry Massey / The Oracle)

The mess was such that EMTEC had to bring in a chemist to test and categorize the approximately 85 liquids that eventually had to be disposed of, according to an email Kneebone sent to trustees and others during the cleanup.

(After the spill, a third faculty member, assistant professor Wray Jones, also was placed on paid administrative leave. Jones, who was Henderson’s chemical hygiene officer for its science labs, was not implicated in any illegal activity. He was reinstated on Nov. 25, 2019, but retired the next month. He died in April at age 81. The chemistry department chair, Martin Campbell, did not return a phone message seeking comment.)

Hatchett also noted some of the labs’ ventilation hoods were either not working or not working efficiently. Vent hoods, which are designed to remove fumes from the area in which a lab operator is working with potentially hazardous chemicals, are an important part of lab safety.

In a Nov. 7, 2019, email to Henderson’s board of trustees and others, Kneebone noted that the school would “need to address the lab safety program to prevent future incidents and improve the ventilation system in Reynolds.”

Hankins, the ASU spokesman, said vent hoods were inspected before being returned to use for classes and now work properly. Asked if Henderson’s financial problems contributed to the labs’ disarray and faulty vents in the labs, Hankins said, “No.”

The failure of the lab ventilation system, in fact, may have led to the discovery of the alleged illicit activities of the two professors. 

In a transcript of an interview with Rowland conducted by Henderson provost Steve Adkison on Oct. 11, 2019, Rowland said the odor identified by the students in the chemistry department on the night of Oct. 7 originated with a “tipped over bottle that had some legacy waste in it that we found stored under the hood of my laboratory.” (At the time of the interview, neither Rowland nor Bateman had been accused of a crime.)

“Apparently, the hood was not in operation and it was blowing, I guess, air across the building,” Rowland told the provost. “It should have vented out the ceiling and it just spread that stuff everywhere."

Rowland’s trial is scheduled to begin the week of Sept. 27. Bateman’s trial is set to begin Oct. 26. The men are free on bond but are being electronically monitored and are not allowed to travel outside Clark County.

After the ASU System took over Henderson, an ASU safety officer reviewed the situation and made recommendations for the campus moving forward. Among them was the creation of a new administrative role: a director of risk management. The school’s budget now includes the position, though Hankins said it has not yet been filled.

This story is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans.

The Arkansas Nonprofit News Network is an independent, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans. Our work is re-published by partner newsrooms across the state.