University Accused of Lying to Hide Killing

Laura Dickinson's family  --  father Robert, mother Deb and brother Kevin  --  attends a hearing in her murder case.
Laura Dickinson's family -- father Robert, mother Deb and brother Kevin -- attends a hearing in her murder case. (By Rex Larsen -- Grand Rapids Press Via Associated Press)
By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 21, 2007

CHICAGO -- A janitor found Laura Dickinson dead in her Eastern Michigan University dorm room in December, naked below the waist, a pillow over her face. The door was locked, and her keys were gone.

No foul play was suspected, the university announced. As the campus mourned and Dickinson's family gathered to bury the 22-year-old rower, police opened an investigation. But school authorities stuck to their story for more than two months -- even after they learned that the medical examiner had found semen on her body and even as police questioned other students and faculty and took DNA samples -- until the arrest of a fellow student on rape and homicide charges.

Now, an independent report contends university officials covered up the likelihood that a crime had been committed and the killer was still at large. The 568-page document, commissioned by the university's board of regents, says that school authorities withheld information, deceived the public and potentially violated a federal law designed to warn students of campus safety threats.

"The facts show that the University failed to timely and properly warn the campus community about Ms. Dickinson's death, which was unquestionably a possible homicide," says the report, by the Detroit law firm Butzel Long.

"After they realized they had a murder, not only did they not warn people, they lied about it," said S. Daniel Carter, senior vice president of the national nonprofit organization Security on Campus, founded by the parents of murdered Lehigh University student Jeanne Clery. "Every other residential student on that campus was risking their lives. It's reflective of a culture that would rather keep things secret and deal with them internally."

The incident has gained resonance since the killings at Virginia Tech, where university officials were criticized for not alerting students after the first two victims were found dead in a dorm room. As in that tragedy, critics say EMU's actions could have placed more students in harm's way.

A federal law named after Clery requires universities to publicize crimes on campus and warn students about safety threats. The Education Department is investigating whether EMU violated the Clery Act. Results are expected shortly.

Earlier this week, appearing before the board of regents, EMU President John A. Fallon III formally apologized for the university's handling of the case and vowed that "never again will such a confounding series of mistakes be made on my watch." Student Orange Taylor III remains in custody in Dickinson's death.

Statements on the university's Web site say officials were following the lead of the police department and the medical examiner's office, which said that they were investigating a "death," rather than a "homicide," and registered no official cause of death until February.

"We probably should have said there are some suspicious circumstances here, and that probably would have ended the problem," Vice President for Student Affairs James Vick, who has been placed on paid leave, said Tuesday. "Certainly one could armchair-quarterback it, but to say there was a coverup or some sort of insidious plan there is crazy."

The Butzel Long report says Vick ordered the shredding of a document from the university's Public Safety Department describing the scene in Dickinson's room.

Vick's attorney, Thomas Manchester, said Tuesday that Vick did not order the shredding. He said his client has been made the scapegoat for a systemic lack of departmental communication and policy.

Dickinson was killed sometime after entering her dorm room the night of Dec. 12, after attending a crew team Christmas party. Security camera footage shows that Taylor entered the Hill Hall dormitory in the early hours of Dec. 13 and left 90 minutes later, carrying a gift bag Dickinson received at the party.

After Dickinson missed final exams and did not return phone calls for two days, a custodian unlocked the door and found her body. Dickinson's parents did not learn of the circumstances of her death or the criminal investigation until Taylor's Feb. 23 arrest.

Victor Walker, an EMU senior, said he thinks school officials had students' best interest at heart but they should have done more.

"Sometimes a few short words can make all the difference," said Walker, 31. "Even if it had been 'We are not sure, but we may have a possible homicide.' I don't know anyone who's going to run out in the street howling and screaming if they say that. But then you don't walk around with your head in the clouds not believing you could fall victim to the same thing."

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