Go to Destination: Scandal!

Obscene Phone Calls Are Traced to AU President

By Patricia Davis and Rene Sanchez
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 25, 1990; Page A01

Richard E. Berendzen abruptly resigned this month as president of American University while Fairfax County police were investigating obscene phone calls that led directly -- and unexpectedly -- to the president's private phone, sources said yesterday.

The investigation began several weeks ago, when Fairfax County police received several complaints, some of them from people employed in day-care or baby-sitting jobs, about "dirty calls," according to a source.

The source said that the caller in question, in telephone conversations with the adult women day-care providers, made inappropriate or sexually oriented comments about children under their care.

Berendzen has not been charged with any crime.

One call was placed to the home of a Fairfax County police officer, and investigators placed a "trap" on the phone, to trace the calls' origin, the source said. That home received another call, and Fairfax police traced it to American University, but they did not know the precise location, the source said.

Fairfax police then approached university officials, who undertook their own investigation, which eventually led to Berendzen, sources said.

When new phone calls were made to the Fairfax home, campus telephone technicians, using computers, traced the calls with successively greater precision -- first to a sector of campus, then to Berendzen's building, and finally to the president's private phone, the sources said.

Law enforcement officials had little public comment yesterday on the Harvard-educated astronomer.

Fairfax Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr. confirmed that Berendzen was under investigation for telephone calls he allegedly placed to Northern Virginia, but he would not detail the nature of the alleged calls.

"There have been some complaints made about him that the Fairfax County police are investigating," he said. "I won't concede for a minute that he's being investigated for obscene phone calls. I'll wait and see what the investigation shows."

Fairfax police declined to comment on the substance of the case. "We're not discussing the specifics of an investigation which may or may not be going on," said Bill Coulter, a police spokesman.

The Fairfax investigation is continuing, a source said. Law enforcement officials in another jurisdiction are investigating a similar complaint by another day-care worker, the source said.

Persistent efforts to reach Berendzen, 51, for an interview have been unsuccessful. Close family members and university officials say that Berendzen has called them in recent days, but did not disclose where he is, and declined to leave a number where he could be reached.

Allegations of unspecified "improper behavior" by the 10-year university president first emerged Monday in a letter to the university community from Edward R. Carr, chairman of American's board of trustees. Carr's letter, dated last Friday, did not specify the nature of the allegations, but alluded to their "private nature" and said they "concerned personal actions."

In an interview yesterday, Carr, a Northern Virginia homebuilder, said he stood by the letter and would not elaborate on its contents.

Anita F. Gottlieb, assistant vice president for community relations and a spokeswoman for the university, said Fairfax authorities approached campus security officials on March 29 to ask for help in their investigation of obscene calls.

"At that point we had no idea this was anything else but routine," Gottlieb said, "and we handled it in a routine manner. There were no executives involved."

The university, Carr and Gottlieb said, fully cooperated with Fairfax authorities, and the investigation took about a week. The two declined to give details.

When campus security officials approached the campus telecommunications office, the sources said, they learned that the office kept no record of local calls. Accustomed to monitoring long-distance calls, the sources said, telecommunications officials set about writing a computer program to keep track of local ones placed to the Fairfax home.

Examining a series of phone calls placed from campus, the sources said, the computer program homed in on the origin of the calls. Technicians first isolated a "trunk number" designating a sector of the university's Northwest Washington campus.

Next, the technicians traced the call to the president's office building, a white colonial structure on a hill, the sources said.

To their shock, the technicians' final adjustment led to Berendzen's private line, the sources said.

It took five days, the sources said, to complete the trace on the calls. There are more than 4,000 extensions on American's campus.

"The first time we found out there was a potential problem involving the president was on the 5th of April," Gottlieb said.

"It was confirmed on the 6th, and the chairman of the board was notified, and a resignation was in the chairman's hands by the morning of Sunday, the 8th."

A source said that after campus officials realized that the calls led to Berendzen's office, they told Fairfax police that they believed they knew who had made the calls, but they did not reveal the caller's identity, asking for time to "get him out of there."

In a report broadcast last night on WUSA-TV (Channel 9), an unidentified woman said a man made numerous calls to her over two weeks after she placed a classified advertisement for baby-sitting services in The Washington Post. She said on the broadcast that the calls were "an absolute living hell" for her family.

When she notified the police, the station quoted her as saying, they placed a device on her phone to trace the calls. Near the close of the investigation, she said, "He made one final call to me."

"He said he knew I was the one that did this to him, and he didn't know what my intentions were, what I was up to, but he was going to try and get on with his life. He hoped that I did the same . . . . And he wished me a lot of luck . . . . And then he was just extremely angry and he hung up on me."

Before hanging up, the woman said, the caller accused her of leading him on.

"He claimed that I duped him, is the word that he used," she said. "I said, 'I don't think so. You answered my ad, and you started the conversation.' "

In his letter of resignation April 10, Berendzen wrote that he was leaving the university because "I am exhausted."

In an interview that same day, trustee Carr said he did not understand the reason for Berendzen's departure.

Trustees said yesterday that a majority of the university's board members were not told that any alleged improprieties of the sort Carr mentioned in his letter this week played any role in Berendzen's resignation.

Some trustees expressed anger when told of the police investigation into Berendzen's alleged activities.

"The first I learned about {his resignation} was in the newspaper" two weeks ago, said one trustee.

"We were kept completely in the dark about this," said another trustee. "The only knowledge I have is what was in the official letter {written by Carr}. Nobody has said a word about a police investigation."

According to sources, university officials kept the reason for Berendzen's abrupt departure a secret until Sunday night, when the board's executive committee formally accepted his resignation. Sources said the board members were not given details of the allegations at that time.

Carr disputed any suggestion that the university improperly withheld information about the resignation from some campus officials. He said events have unfolded so quickly in recent days that he was unable to inform some trustees fully.

Staff writers John Ward Anderson, Joel Glenn Brenner, Sandra Evans, Barton Gellman, Sari Horwitz and Steve Twomey contributed to this report.

© The Washington Post Co.

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