Tim Rose, chief executive officer of the University of Virginia Foundation, was incorrectly identified as Tim Rosen, and as the foundation's executive director, in an Oct. 6 Metro article about a U-Va. teaching assistant who lost his job. (Published 10/8/04)

The thing about detective stories, see, is that the hero often can't read the clues around him and figure out he's in danger. That's what Justin Gifford used to teach at the University of Virginia -- before 23 of his students were arrested and he was removed from his job Monday.

Gifford says everyone has "blown this out of proportion," and many of his students are petitioning for his return. But administrators say he just didn't read the warning signs.

The plot: Gifford, a 28-year-old graduate student and teaching assistant in the English Department, wanted the students in his American detective fiction class to experience a haunting, eerie place for themselves to better understand the creepy Poe and Melville stories they were reading.

The setting: On Sept. 23, Gifford and 23 students carpooled to the foot of the Monticello estate on the outskirts of Charlottesville, climbed over a padlocked cattle fence with NO TRESPASSING signs on either post and wandered onto the grounds of the abandoned Blue Ridge Sanitarium, a place that once treated tuberculosis patients.

Gifford divided the students into groups, gave them disposable cameras and sent them off to explore the sanitarium, a decrepit 1920s-era building with peeling paint, where coffee cups and typewriters were left as if someone had just walked away one day, old medical records scattered on the floor.

"The minute you step onto the property, you get a sense of hauntedness and eeriness I've never felt," said Kim Turner, one of Gifford's students. "Scary movies, you know it's fake. This exists."

At the same time, just across the street, an employee of Michie Tavern, becoming used to such forbidden forays, called the police. The police called the University of Virginia Foundation, which owns the land. Gifford said police scolded him, saying he exposed the students to asbestos and leprosy. Trespassing charges were filed, carrying a maximum penalty of 12 months in jail and a $2,500 fine.

News of the arrests swept the campus. Lawyers were contacted. Apologies were offered. Explanations were given. Tears were shed. Parents worried about criminal records. Gifford sent an e-mail to reassure students, signed "Justin 'corrupting the youth' Gifford," which was forwarded and forwarded and forwarded and whose "irreverent" tone helped seal his fate.

"The e-mail did not help him," said Gordon Braden, chair of the English Department.

On Sept. 28, just as Gifford and his nervous students showed up at the Albermarle County District Courthouse, charges against all of them were dropped in return for payment of $66 each in court costs. Then on Monday, Braden told Gifford he had been suspended from teaching for the rest of the semester.

"It's unfortunate all around," Braden said. "We certainly value him as a teacher and hope to get things back on track here. But the incident itself is a cause of great concern because of its effect on students." He is trying to have mention of the students' arrests expunged from the public record.

The characters: Justin Gifford, a teaching assistant for six years at U-Va., was honored in 2003 with a $7,000 award for "superb teaching" by the Seven Society, one of the university's secret societies, whose members remain anonymous until they die.

Part of what made Gifford so popular was his willingness to take students out of the classroom and to confront touchy subjects -- he turned the slog through freshman English into an exploration of Charlottesville's uneasy history of race and urban space. He said students also appreciated his "spontaneity." What better way to help them come up with a working definition of gothic and terror than to see a spooky urban legend up close?

"It was a kind of moment of inspiration," Gifford said in a telephone interview. "I thought, this is something that could be amazing."

He did not ask permission because "an administrative body is always a slow-moving body, and these courses aren't very long." In hindsight, he recognizes that as a "fatal error."

His first missed clue.

He didn't think anything of climbing over the cattle gate because, "well, this is University of Virginia property," he said. "They don't want other people here, but we're not here to cause anybody malice or harm. No one will mind."

His second miscalculation.

And he sent a "lighthearted" e-mail to cheer up his worried students, writing that the foundation was acting like "a ruthless corporation," that "every single person i talked to yesterday thought that our story was endearing and at various points hilarious" and calling the students "detective heroes in training."

Three strikes. You're out.

Tim Rosen is executive director of the University of Virginia Foundation, a private, nonprofit organization that owns thousands of acres of real estate, including the tony Boar's Head Inn, 14 farms, one golf course, 18 office buildings and the derelict Blue Ridge Sanitarium, among other properties, that could be of use to the university some day. The sanitarium site will become a research park "10 to 20 years out," he said.

Police told him that the students had been "breaking, entering and stealing" -- removing plywood over a door and pinching signs such as "Orthopedics This Way." He said he gave the go-ahead to "handle this as they would handle any other matter." And the arrests began.

Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Richard Deloria finds that he's prosecuting more trespassers at Blue Ridge than in years past. There was the couple claiming to be picking blackberries. There were the student photographers. And then there were Gifford's 23 amateur sleuths.

Enter Susan Harris, assistant to U-Va.'s vice president, who told Deloria that the university "would not object to dropping charges against the students," though she made no mention of Gifford.

"It was a class trip, so [the students] were led to believe that it was okay to be out there," Harris said. "But one of the buildings was boarded up. They took the boards off the door and entered it. It's sort of hard for me to understand why they thought it was acceptable."

Gifford spent yesterday helping students prepare for a class he no longer is allowed to teach, thanks to the disastrous field trip.

"I just thought it would be a fun experience," he said. "Something we never would forget. That unfortunately turned out to be more true than I ever imagined."

The moral: Sometimes you never know how a story will end.

Justin Gifford's class field trip ended with trespassing charges.Justin Gifford has been removed from his class after he led the students on a field trip to an abandoned building.