Eastern Mich. Campus Tense After Murder Cover-up Investigation

By: Associated Press
By: Associated Press

(AP) Laura Dickinson's death in her Eastern Michigan University dorm room just before Christmas break was, by all outward appearances, some sort of tragic, freak accident.

University officials told her parents and the media that she died of asphyxiation but there was no sign of foul play.

It wasn't until a suspect was arrested in late February that her family and fellow students learned the real story: Laura Dickinson had been raped and murdered.

Now many in the university's administration from the president on down are being accused of covering up the truth and endangering students to protect the school's image, which has been marred in recent years by tensions with faculty, students and the community.

"Somewhere a choice has got to be made to tell the parents," Laura's father, Bob Dickinson said this week from the family-owned coffee shop about 120 miles northwest of Detroit in Hastings. "We always suspected something had happened ... besides something natural. But we had no idea what."

After the medical examiner's report, "we didn't ask all the right questions," said her father. "A 22-year-old healthy girl just doesn't die without some kind of reason."

An independent investigation ordered March 20 by the school's Board of Regents eventually revealed that the vice president in charge of student affairs, the public safety chief and the school's communications office knew a homicide likely had been committed, but intentionally kept the investigation secret.

The report also says an internal police document describing how Laura Dickinson was found — spread-eagled and face up on the floor with a pillow covering her face, naked from the waist down — was ordered shredded.

The university's lack of candor left students, parents, faculty and staff unaware that a possible rapist and murderer was roaming the Ypsilanti campus, home to about 25,000 students.

"They kept telling us there was no cause for alarm, (but) we were sleeping through this girl being murdered in her room," said Asia David, 20, an apparel merchandising major who lived a few floors above Dickinson's room in Hill Hall.

"When I first heard about it, I thought maybe the school didn't know how she died," she said. "(Now) it just seems like they were really holding stuff back from us. I didn't really trust anything they said after that."

Geneve Maxwell, 30, said she and other students have a right to be angry and fearful. "I don't feel safe in my lab. I lock the door," she said Wednesday.

Outside Laura's former room, someone recently placed a brown, fuzzy Teddy bear and eight pink roses. A note simply read: "Laura, may you rest in peace."

Police reports say Dickinson may have been dead as long as three days before a university employee investigating a foul odor complaint found her body about 1:30 p.m. on Dec. 15.

Campus police called in technicians from the Michigan State Police crime lab who told school officials they believed she could have been murdered. By 9:30 p.m., the county medical examiner listed the death as suspicious and that foul play was a possibility.

But the next day, Eastern Michigan posted the following on its Web site:

"At this point, there is no reason to suspect foul play. We are fully confident in the safety and security of our campus environment, and our campus officials will remain vigilant in ensuring safety for all members of our campus community."

That position didn't change until Feb. 23 when a 20-year-old Eastern Michigan student, Orange Taylor III, was arrested and charged with murder and criminal sexual conduct.

Taylor became a suspect in January after being seen on a security camera entering the dorm early on the morning Dickinson is believed to have been killed. He was questioned Jan. 25 by police and admitted to stealing a bag from her room that contained a PlayStation controller, along with a scarf and maybe her keys.

Police said Taylor's DNA matched semen on Dickinson's leg and bed. He has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.

The arrest proved awkward for university officials. When asked how there could be a suspect when there wasn't even a murder investigation, Student Affairs Vice President James Vick told communications staff "not to worry about that right now."

Vick, who has been on paid administrative leave since March 5, has been criticized for his role and for not informing school President John Fallon III that police suspected Dickinson had been murdered.

Fallon, the fourth school president since 1999, didn't know there was a homicide investigation prior to Taylor's arrest. He hasn't discussed the case publicly since the independent investigation, but read a statement this week before the Board of Regents in which he apologized for the administration's actions.

"Never again will such a confounding series of mistakes be made on my watch," he said. "Members of this university are working hard to create a university that is noteworthy and trustworthy."

The Associated Press left several telephone messages seeking comment from Fallon this week.

The controversy over how Dickinson's death was handled is just the latest in a series of issues that have left the campus roiled in recent years. One president resigned in 2004 after it was learned the $5.3 million presidential residence the university built was improperly funded.

Three regents on the governing board resigned last December, around the time faculty contract talks broke down.

New regent James Stapleton said the way Dickinson's death was handled is more evidence of the university's ongoing problems.

"The environment on campus has been somewhat toxic in relation to the administration, faculty, staff and regents," he said. "This wasn't something new."

Faculty union President Howard Bunsis said it was typical of the way the administration operates.

"They are so afraid of bad publicity," Bunsis said. "I believe they just hunkered down and thought they could not tell the truth."

A faculty advisory group Wednesday night issued a "no confidence" vote in Fallon's leadership and called for the regents to fire him.

Eastern Michigan, one of 15 public universities in the state, may have violated the Clery Act, which says colleges and universities must disclose campus security information. The U.S. Department of Education is expected to release its report in two weeks, and could sanction the school. Once that report comes back, Stapleton said the board will discuss whether to remove Fallon.

"The Eastern Michigan situation appears to be the single most serious violation of the Clery Act that we have ever seen," said S. Daniel Carter, of Security on Campus Inc., a nonprofit group that looks at crime at colleges and universities.

School officials "misled the entire campus community," he added.

The independent investigation concluded only that there were no policies in place to alert the campus to any threats. Regents will use recommendations from its report to improve the way the school communicates.

Despite the outcry surrounding his daughter's death, Bob Dickinson said he's not angry at the university.

"We're somewhat indifferent about it — the investigation and the outcomes from it," he said. "(Eastern Michigan) is dealing with its own problems right now, which are kind of huge. Bob and Debra Dickinson don't have anything to do with that. We're dealing with the death of Laura and the trial coming up."

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  • by Chuck Location: Guelph, Ontario, Canada on Jun 23, 2007 at 02:57 PM
    As a graduate of EMU, and an EMU licence plate wearer, I am saddened and depressed by University Leadership that could take such a stand on a crime like this one.
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