Not-so-smooth criminals

When reports of campus crimes turn up in the pages of student newspapers, some culprits of the crimes will do anything to avoid publicityeven steal the newspapers

Newspaper theft culprits found out the hard way this year that their attempts to cover up information about a crime by committing another crime can draw more attention to it and some college administrators and law enforcement officials are taking such crimes more seriously.

Thus for the 2004-2005 school year, 10 out of the 25 newspaper thefts reported to the Student Press Law Center were spurred by coverage of campus crimes. In three of those cases, the culprits of the original crime or their supporters were responsible for the newspaper theft.

On Feb. 11, the weekly student newspaper at the State University of New York at New Paltz printed a front-page article about a cross country team coach who had been charged with rape. The day the story was printed, 2,500 copies of the New Paltz Oracle were stolen. Cross country team member Jason Letts admitted to stealing about 300 copies of them, he said, because he wanted to show his former coach that he was still valued for all of his contributions, despite the condemning reaction of the community. He said he is willing to accept the consequences for the "good" that came of his crime. The Oracle estimates about $2,600 in printing and advertising costs were lost due to the theft. The total print run is 3,500.

College spokesman Eric Gullickson said administrators take the reported theft very seriously because it conflicts with the school's educational mission of "free inquiry and expression," and a few areas of the school's judicial code, including "property damage and destruction."

When four fraternity members attempted to conceal their crime by stealing 3,000 copies of Arkansas State University's student newspaper, the theft gained national media coverage. On Jan. 24 the Herald featured a front-page article about a minor who was hospitalized for alcohol poisoning after attending a party at the Sigma Chi fraternity house. The four fraternity members admitted they took the papers, returned them and paid $510 in reimbursement on Jan. 27.

Dean of Student Affairs Roger Lee said Arkansas State University began an investigation with a hearing process through the campus judicial system, but Herald adviser Bonnie Thrasher said the financial reimbursement and apologies were "punishment enough," and she had the police drop the investigation and not charge the culprits.

At Arkansas State, Lee said newspaper theft is considered an offense because the school sees the act as a violation of freedom of the press, which violates the school's community standards and code of conduct.

Additionally, "there is monetary value as well as informational value," in the stolen newspapers, he said. In his experience at Arkansas State University, he said, newspaper theft is not in the "prank category," and is usually committed in order to "stifle information" that the media relay.

While the people responsible for newspaper thefts in New York and Arkansas turned themselves in, at other schools the culprits were caught in the act. At Vincennes University, Trailblazer Editor in Chief Ryan Wilson said two days after anonymous sources began calling to report that individual members of a fraternity were seen stealing copies of the newspaper, the culprits were punished through the university's judicial system. On Nov. 20, 2004, the paper featured a front-page article exposing the fraternity’s suspension for alcohol use at rush events and implicating the fraternity in an alleged rape. Members of that fraternity allegedly stole approximately 1,600 copies, according to Trailblazer adviser Mark Stalcup.

At Eastern Illinois University members of the school band were accused of taking 4,000 copies of the Dec. 3, 2004 edition of the Daily Eastern News, which printed an account of a band member who said she was sexually assaulted on a trip to a football game in Tennessee. Director of Student Publications John Ryan said band members were seen taking papers throughout the day.

Ryan said the Eastern Illinois band director apologized and offered to reimburse the newspaper for any expenses incurred from the theft. The paper did not incur any extra costs or lose any advertising revenue because of the theft, Ryan said, but it did chronicle the theft in the Dec. 6 edition, along with a reprint of the original story and an editorial denouncing the theft.

It is likely that newspaper thieves at West Georgia University were trying to cover up information about a homicide, reported on Nov. 17. On Nov. 23 the West Georgian filed a report with campus police on the theft of 2,500 copies of their paper. There was no progress in the investigation, Editor in Chief Daniel Bell said.

Attempting to conceal a crime by committing a crime brought nothing but more attention to the stories some newspaper thieves were trying to hide.

Based on his experience at Arkansas State University, Lee said stealing newspapers is "a pretty cowardly act." As far as attempting to stifle information about the crime that the newspaper reports on, he added, newspaper theft is usually "ineffective all the way around," because it does not actually conceal the information printed.

Eric Gullickson said the SUNY at New Paltz administration is using the experience of a story about an alleged crime leading to another crime as a "teachable moment" for all the parties involved, so they can learn from it and benefit from it further down the road.

"The [newspaper thieves] wanted to protect someone who they had an alliance with, and very often that knee-jerk reaction is not necessarily the best and most productive way to go about things," he said. "Especially when it involves something like this, when you're depriving all these people of this vehicle for expression," Gullickson added.

At Eastern Illinois University, Ryan said, the incriminating story was printed on a Friday, a day many members of the campus do not pick up the paper at all.

"If the marching band and friends would have been smart, they would have just been quiet as hell," Ryan said. "By stealing them, they brought a lot of attention on themselves."

reports, Spring 2005