April 17, 2019
Douglas Ferrin remembers the moment he blew two-and-a-half fingers off his right hand with the sort of vividness that “has an edge of trauma to it” – coupled with pain and shame.
It was 4:05 a.m. on May 7, 2014. Since around dinner time the day before, he had been drinking rum. He considered that a reward for finishing up some paintings bound for a gallery in North Carolina, but was not "fall-down drunk."
His neighbor Betty was visiting his Germantown home, right next to a Sunoco gas station.
Ferrin said he was showing off some “fireworks” he’d built himself to ward off potential robbers. The one he held in his right hand, however, was about to throw his life into an upheaval that lingers to this day.
He can picture looking at his hand and “the firecracker laying in it loosely.” As he readied to throw it onto the lawn behind his Queen Lane home, he “saw the fuse suddenly spark up and take off fast.”
“I can still feel it exploding, actually," the 59-year-old artist said recently. "My hand – the missing fingers – are forever frozen in the position they were in when it went off. I can still feel them vaporizing. It hurts like hell, especially at night.
“After it blew, I felt unreal, like everything was unreal, the pain unbelievable, but also I felt like I had entered a new world, and sometimes I think maybe I had. I felt that I had somehow left my old world behind entirely.”
Screaming as “flames of pain” shot up his arm, he managed to wrap a towel around the bloody stump in a frantic effort to “stanch the bleeding without hurting myself too badly.”
Betty called 911 and, as Ferrin remembers it, a plainclothes detective arrived a minute later, with another investigator not too far behind.
They asked Ferrin if he had any more explosives.
Yes, there are a few firecrackers on the coffee table, he answered.
In the eyes of the law, those "firecrackers" and other items inside the home would become “bomb-making materials and three completed IEDs,” or improvised explosive devices.
Ferrin did enter a new world in those wee hours, the explosion wreaking far more havoc than the gruesome injury to his painting hand.
Publicly portrayed as a lunatic who threw explosives at the neighboring gas station, Ferrin would be shackled to an Albert Einstein Medical Center bed then moved to Curran Fromhold Correctional Facility two weeks later, where he said pain medications were hard to come by. From there, he was off to a trial that saw him convicted on charges including unlawful possession or manufacture of "weapons of mass destruction."
Eventually, he would serve three years in a state prison near Pittsburgh, where he trained his left hand to handle painting, writing and other day-to-day duties. (Luckily, he thinks his dad was right all along: Ferrin is actually left-handed.)
Today, living in an apartment in the shadows of Jefferson Frankford Hospital, still saddled with eight years of probation, Ferrin is on a mission to reclaim his career and reputation by convincing the world he's not a firebug.
That’s not an easy thing to do when you have a previous conviction for blowing up a toilet inside a crowded Phoenixville bar.
"No, I'm not a danger to the community, and I never have been." – Douglas Ferrin
Ferrin also wants to draw attention to what he deems the criminal justice system’s vast shortcomings, making the case that he was railroaded in court in "an illegal perversion of justice" designed to keep the prison-industrial complex churning.
As he lays out his case in a messy second-floor apartment, Ferrin is asked whether his history makes him a threat, or danger, to the community.
"No, I'm not," he said. "And I never have been."
Though he's vehement in his response, it's a hard sell, since many would, and do, consider Ferrin to be just that.
Pushback isn't the sort of thing that seems to deter him, though. He's on a mission, and he wants you to hear what he has to say.
Douglas Ferrin was born and raised in Humboldt County, California. His dad worked a white-collar job, so he stuck out from peers in blue-collar families. He also struggled with the Bipolar II Disorder – since birth, he believes.
He said he “learned how to nip it in the bud” while growing up. Still, he was different to the point that people thought – then and now – that he’s a bit eccentric.
“I was beat up constantly, bullied all the time,” he recalled during a recent interview with PhillyVoice. “It was a rough childhood. I wound up with a super-heightened sense of empathy. Watching ‘America’s Funniest Home Videos’ makes me nauseous. I feel it when somebody else gets hurt.”
Ferrin has never been all that keen on staying put. He's lived in Boston (1977-79), Philadelphia (1979-83), Baltimore (1983-88), Toulouse and Ceret, France (1988-1991), back to California (1991-93), West Palm Beach, Florida (1993-2006), Phoenixville (2006), Portland, Oregon (2007), Canton, Ohio (2008), Hudson and Buffalo, New York (2008-09) and back to Phoenixville (2010-11) before the in-and-out-of-jail phase of his life commenced.
Florida is where he established himself as the type of artist who could draw commissions from moneyed patrons in West Palm Beach.
He drops names like Robert Montgomery (the late attorney best known for winning billions from the tobacco industry), Lois Pope (whose late husband founded the National Enquirer), Wayne Huizenga (the late former owner of the Miami Dolphins, Florida Marlins and Florida Panthers) and the late actor Burt Reynolds, whose posthumous property auction featured a Ferrin painting.
He recalls interactions with Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago, courtesy of those patrons back in the day. ("I would always say to him, 'You look familiar.' He got a real kick out of that after a while," said Ferrin.)
"All my old clients are dead," he rued. "That's been a problem."
A 2003 apartment fire in Florida was a mishap, he said, when pork chops cooking led to a grease fire that sparked a nearby supply of gunpowder. The “terrible accident” resulted in no criminal charges.
Another apartment fire, this one in 2006 in Phoenixville, Chester County, was more dire. In his third-floor unit, a lamp came in contact with combustible material, sparking a blaze which destroyed some $600,000 worth of property and left him with burns so serious he was airlifted to a burn center.
He said he lost about a third of his lung capacity due to smoke inhalation, and likened the experience to coming back from the dead. He said he suffers from PTSD from that incident, which doesn’t mesh all that well with the ADHD that’s impacted him for decades, along with his up-and-down battle with the sort of alcoholism that leads to bad decisions made in public.
“The moments are always there, from the coma and the fire. Fire moves so fast. I was trying to put it out, but it was in the wall,” he said. “I was drinking, but not drunk. People want to blame it on my drinking, but the fire marshal told me there was no way I could put out a fire in a wall.
"The fires were never brought up at trial, not once, so I find most people's knee-jerk assumption that I was really convicted for being a firebug completely and entirely erroneous."
After a several-month-long stint living in Ohio with his sister and brother-in-law during which he could barely paint, he moved back to a motel in Phoenixville.
There began the narrative leading to his WMD conviction.
Despite his ongoing effort to point out the wrongs of the legal system, a campaign painstakingly detailed in a blog post that, when printed, covers 51 pages, he readily admits guilt in a 2011 incident – destroying a toilet at Molly Maguire’s Pub in Phoenixville with an M-100 explosive – that landed him in prison.
Those admissions – specifically, a video confession – would be used against him in court in the later Germantown case.
According to news accounts about that incident, Ferrin – labeled the “Bathroom Bomber” – “allegedly blew up a bathroom at a crowded restaurant during pre-St. Patrick’s Day festivities, nearly injuring two people.”
“It was quite an explosion that had taken place,” said William J. Mossman, Phoenixville’s chief of police at the time. “It was lucky that someone did not get injured because a patron just left the bathroom and another one was getting ready to use it. We knew it wasn’t a firecracker.”
Ferrin was identified as the suspect because police had spoken to him two weeks earlier about a detonation behind the nearby motel where he’d been living for about a year.
Surveillance footage from the bar led that officer to put two and two together. A search of his room turned up “a lot of bombmaking material,” according to reports from the time.
Five months later, Ferrin – whose work had recently been featured at a Society Hill art gallery – pleaded guilty to a single count of causing an explosion. (He’d initially been charged with arson, risking a catastrophe and other offenses).
Ferrin admitted to lighting the M-100 and throwing it into the toilet because he’d been flagged. He was immediately paroled for time served and planned to begin another round of outpatient counseling for mental health issues and substance abuse.
His attorney was quoted as saying those challenges contributed to the action, but that he was “pleased that the public perception that a fella had dynamite should now be put to rest. There’s quite a difference between dynamite and fireworks.”
Said Ferrin of that chapter of his life: “I do not make rational choices when drinking and this was an example.”
He said the explosive was among the “homemade firecrackers” that he had in his motel room, a defense that would surface later in the case that cost him his hand, as well.
“I stood by the door to not let anyone enter, and let it explode,” he said. “The police came. It was not roped off as a crime scene. It seemed to be part of the party.”
It was actually a big mistake, one that would contribute to his loss of freedom, but he couldn't have known that at the time.
Still, he sought a new beginning when he moved to Philadelphia’s Germantown section in 2014.
But instead of a fresh start, Douglas Ferrin's destructive cycle continued, and was about to take a turn for the worse.
Charlie Bugg owned and managed a property near West Queen Lane and Greene Street in Germantown. It was a place where people “in recovery from drugs or alcohol” could live as they tried to get their lives back in order.
Soon, the group home emptied as people moved out. Ferrin told Bugg that he could live there alone, didn’t have a drug or alcohol problem, and could pay rent. Ferrin moved in.
When Bugg talked about his former tenant last week, he shared fond memories of a man he knew to be troubled, but who had the upper hand on his inner demons.
“We chatted about various things, nothing really that heavy,” he said. “I found out that he’d been incarcerated. He said he put a cherry bomb in a toilet, it blew up and he served some time. He wasn’t really happy with being in jail, but he survived it.”
Bugg ended up with a piece of Ferrin artwork, calling him a “pretty good painter.”
“He’s a charming guy, a pleasure to rent to. He can speak with anybody. A really nice guy, but he had a thing for little bombs,” said Bugg, who now lives a few doors away from Ferrin in Frankford and was never called as a character witness at his tenant’s trial. “Hopefully, that’s in his past.”
It wasn’t in his past five years ago in Germantown. But despite the chaos of May 2014, Bugg said Ferrin didn't damage the apartment or turn it into a bomb-making factory.
“The only damage he did,” said Bugg, “was bleed all over the place.”
Through it all, the only person that Douglas Ferrin has physically harmed is himself, and the biggest harm came in those wee hours of May 7, 2014.
That day, the neighborhood whispers and media accounts were all about the regular police visits to the home after people heard explosions. The blast that cost Ferrin part of his hand captured the attention of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and city prosecutors.
According to Charlene Hennessy, public information officer for the ATF’s Philadelphia field division, members of the agency’s Arson and Explosives Task Force joined Philadelphia police in responding to a “report of an explosion at a residence” in Germantown.
A search of the house turned up more homemade explosives, devices and explosive powder, she said. A joint investigation found that Ferrin had previously been arrested and convicted for similar offenses.
"It was also determined that Ferrin did not have a federal explosive license or permit, and did not possess a State of Pennsylvania license to possess explosives,” Hennessy said.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office would decline to take the case, but the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office decided to prosecute.
Ferrin's case would become one of just 11 prosecutions of a “weapons of mass destruction: unlawful possession or manufacture” charge in the city between 2014 and 2018. It’s a felony charge that doesn’t hinge on the device causing mass destruction; possession is enough.
“He is a danger to his neighbors. He is a danger to himself,” Assistant District Attorney Louis Tumolo argued in court during a trial that determined blood, flesh and pieces of charred plastic were found in the next-door neighbor’s yard.
What sparked Ferrin’s current mission is the fact that, though he was cleared on charges of risking catastrophe and arson, he doesn’t believe he got a fair shake from police. He feels the charges were trumped up since “it’s not illegal to make fireworks.” And he just can’t accept that they qualify as “weapons of mass destruction."
He called police “sadists,” for questioning him as he writhed in pain after the blast.
And he remains unhappy with defense attorneys, he says, who didn’t do enough in his defense and a judge, he contends, who inexplicably allowed prosecutors to use his confession in the Phoenixville case. Ferrin thinks it's a case of "double jeopardy."
“You think justice will prevail,” he said. “But what they gave me was a really s****y deal.”
Sarah Vogel is one of four people who has stuck by Ferrin to this day, he said. Not one of them is a family member, something that clearly gnaws away at his soul.
Vogel worked at a local bank, and he was a client during his time in Germantown.
“Then, we became friends,” Vogel recalled during a phone interview last week. “As much as he has an eccentric personality, he’s the kindest, sweetest man. He’s gotten by by building walls and not letting himself heal from all the things he’s been through.”
“It’s a little like cooking, the recipes, making them work. We all try to make fireworks as kids. Didn’t you?” – Douglas Ferrin
“I want people to fight with me, to understand that I am the victim of an extremely corrupt system,” he said, while smoking a cigarillo. “They invented nefarious uses for innocuous things they found in my house.
"They lied about my character, as well as the three firecrackers I gave them the night of my arrest, comparing them with the 3,000-pound fertilizer bomb that took out the State Building in Oklahoma City [in 1995], and with the kettle bombs set off during the  Boston Marathon.”
He accepts that people might not be inclined to believe him, but just wants them to give his case a listen. His lengthy “Double Jeopardy” blog post from November 2017 lays out his argument in painstaking detail.
It includes entries like:
• “Newspaper gossip became fact. The ‘news’ was spread that I was trying to blow up the gas station (next door). One paper or news show, Sarah told me, had dubbed me the ‘Germantown Bomber.’”
• “(A public defender) told me there were no laws in Pennsylvania prohibiting the manufacture, nor the use of, firework salutes such as mine, that the only restrictions on fireworks had to do with sales.”
• “About five months after my arrest, with the help of Sarah, I sold a painting that I had completed the day of my accident. I used the money to hire a paid lawyer.”
• “(At trial) photographs of my firecrackers with no ruler for scale were projected at thousands of times their actual size.”
• “Although the prosecution did its best to vilify me, I’m certain they were not interested in who I really am, nor did (the judge) seem particularly interested in getting real information about my psychological makeup.”
• “I have never physically hurt anyone but myself in life. … I am now considered a violent offender.”
In the eyes of the law, that is exactly what he is, which is why he’s telling his version of his story publicly to a reporter for the first time now.
Over the course of several hours, he presented his case against the system itself. He repeatedly denied that he's not what police, prosecutors and the general public believes him to be.
“The firework that destroyed my hand has a blast radius the size of a golf ball,” he said. “They’re not killer devices in any way, shape or form. … Yeah, I was making fireworks, but there aren’t any charges against that, because it’s legal to do. Anybody can go out and buy a stick of dynamite. Make sure you write that.”
He’s asked how he developed that dangerous habit.
“It’s a little like cooking, the recipes, making them work. We all try to make fireworks as kids. Didn’t you?” he asked. “It was fun. The loud boom. Who doesn’t like fireworks? Back when I was serious about it, I would make them like rockets that shot stars out into the sky.”
"He’s an awesome dude who got caught up in a system that’s so flawed." – Richie Antipuna
He has particular animosity for the Philadelphia police detective who was the star witness against him. Ferrin considers him a “sadist” and an “opportunist.” (The department did not respond to a request seeking an interview with that detective for this story.)
“I don’t think he thought I was any kind of bad guy. I think it was more ‘I’m going to send this Ivy League f*** to prison,'” he said, alluding to his studies at the University of Pennsylvania. “The only reason they didn’t beat me up is because they would have gotten blood on their shirts.”
He claimed that, thanks to the podcasts he’s been working on in Frankford, he hears from supporters overseas who want to help draw attention to the shoddy conditions both inside America’s prisons and throughout the system that sends convicts to them in the first place.
“I am so tired of not being believed,” he said.
Those who believe Ferrin paint the picture of a caring, considerate man, albeit one who’s faced severe challenges in life, but somehow manages to carry on.
Richie Antipuna, a Kensington man who was being held at Curran Fromhold when Ferrin was brought in from Einstein, remains in contact with him “almost daily” to this day.
“He’s an awesome dude who got caught up in a system that’s so flawed,” he said. “When he was telling his story, I was like, ‘What? Losing your hand isn’t enough punishment for that crime?’ He’s very depressed, not accepting of what he was forced to go through.
“Even to this day, he’s trying to figure out how he got into that situation .... The detectives, the police, the DAs, they painted this big horror story so it looks like they’re protecting the public. Meanwhile, the city has its highest rate of murders in a long time right now.”
Vogel – the banker turned friend – takes it even further.
“I don’t believe we have a justice system anymore because of this,” she said. “The way the trial went down, with people lining up against him, I believe lying, just unfortunately reminds me of a ‘good old boys club.’ What breaks my heart is that I know he’s not alone. It feels to me like we need to throw the whole system out and start over again.
The focus of much of Ferrin’s ire is A.J. Thompson, the attorney who represented him at trial. Despite Ferrin’s claims to the contrary, Thompson said last week that “I thought I did a pretty good job with the case.”
“The main problem with the case is that Doug had blown up a bathroom a few years earlier,” he said, noting that losing the “prior bad arguments” fight that allowed his confession to be aired in court in the Germantown case. “I remember the jury being put off by the video. One they saw it, it was over.”
For his part, Thompson considers his former client to be “a victim of a poorly-worded, broad statute” that lifts any explosive for any purpose to the “weapon of mass destruction” level.
“He’s a goofball, but he wasn’t trying to blow up anybody’s house,” Thompson said. “The ridiculous thing here is that he was properly charged with arson, but that was dismissed. When Republicans (in Congress) came up with this legislation, I don’t think they ever thought they’d be charging someone like Douglas Ferrin with it. Now, the only argument against it is (jury) nullification.
"If someone took it up on a Constitutional challenge, they’d probably win." – A.J. Thompson, defense attorney
“I was an assistant district attorney before I became a defense attorney. Do I think people like Doug Ferrin should be charged with this? No f****** way. It’s statutory overreach. I agree with Doug that he never should have been charged with it. I don’t think he’s a murderous nut, but it could have been a lot worse.”
“If someone took it up on a Constitutional challenge, they’d probably win,” he said. “The statute is overly broad.”
Vogel said Ferrin has have another appeal opportunity left, but he doesn’t have the means to fund it.
“If anybody can do it, he can. But it’s going to take a lot of time,” she said.
And that’s where Douglas Ferrin finds himself today.
He’s regained his wherewithal to paint despite physical limitations; a rubber band is a good way to make sure a brush stays in his right hand should he need it there.
He’s getting word out about the injustices he’s faced, while trying to convince the world that he’s not a firebug who could, at any moment, torch their homes.
He can go on for hours on end about what he’s learned about lapses within the criminal justice system, sometimes sounding like a conspiracy theorist and often sounding as if he’s making valid points that warrant closer inspection on a national level.
What he wants most – he said moments after finishing yet another painting that he hopes to sell – is for “people to fight with me.”
“I hate being this angry. It’s not my nature, but I am so tired of not being believed,” said Ferrin, who has now been out of prison for two years and a month. “I have a joke I tell now: why does everyone in prison think they’re innocent? Because they are."
His message for the non-believers?
“If people say they don’t believe me, I’d encourage them to look into it, to read what I’ve written, to listen to my podcasts. Everything I’ve said is checkable. All you have to do is read the transcripts. If you don’t believe it then, I don’t know what to tell you.
“After having been in prison and having had my reputation and successful career as an artist all-but-destroyed by my conviction, I have been struggling financially since my release. I need help fighting my wrongful conviction.”
Douglas Ferrin is asked one last question before the interview comes to an end: what would he say to someone who thinks – because of a history of criminal charges and mental health challenges – that he’s unbalanced or unhinged?
“I’d say he’s not crazy,” came the quick response. “And I’d say that people think he is because they’ve been told to think that.”
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