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UC Regents strike plea deal in chemistry lab death at UCLA

July 27, 2012 | 11:49 am

UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran with attorney Thomas O'Brien in Los Angeles Superior Court Friday.

Felony charges against the University of California Regents stemming from the 2009 death of UCLA research assistant Sheharbano “Sheri” Sangji were dropped Friday in return for a pledge of comprehensive safety measures and the endowment of a $500,000 scholarship in her name.

“The Regents acknowledge and accept responsibility for the conditions under which the laboratory operated on December 29, 2008,” the agreement read in part, referring to the date that Sangji, 23, suffered fatal burns.

She was transferring about 1.8 ounces of t-butyl lithium from one sealed container to another when a plastic syringe came apart in her hands, spewing a chemical compound that ignites when exposed to air. The synthetic sweater she wore caught fire and melted onto her skin. She died 18 days later.

From the outset, UCLA and chemistry professor Patrick Harran, who is still charged in the case, have cast her death as a tragic accident and said she was a seasoned chemist who was trained in the experiment and chose not to wear a protective lab coat.

In late December, however, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office charged Harran and the UC Regents with three counts each of willfully violating occupational health and safety standards.

Friday’s agreement, announced at a hearing in Los Angeles County Superior Court, does not affect Harran’s charges. University of California officials said Friday they stood by him and would continue to pay his legal expenses. 

Harran was to be arraigned Friday, but that was postponed until Sept. 5 to allow the judge to weigh defense motions, including one this week that alleges the state’s chief investigator on the case, Brian Baudendistel, committed murder as a teenager.

Baudendistel, a senior special investigator for the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, has denied that he is the person of the same name who pleaded no contest to first degree murder when he was 16.

But  Harran’s lawyers said in court papers this week that the district attorney’s office had matched Baudendistel’s fingerprints to the killer’s and that the two share the same birth date. Prosecutors have declined to comment on the allegation or the defense’s motion to quash Harran’s arrest because of it.

The motion contends that the Cal-OSHA investigator is the same Brian A. Baudendistel who, in January 1985 with two accomplices, lured Michael Myer from a bar in the Northern California town of El Dorado to a remote area to rob him of $3,000 worth of methamphetamine. As he rolled up on his motorcycle, Myer, 26, was killed by a shotgun blast. Another teenager admitted to being the shooter, but said Baudendistel had supplied the weapon.


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-- Kim Christensen at L.A. County Superior Court

Photo: UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran with attorney Thomas O'Brien in Los Angeles Superior Court on Friday. Credit: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times