CALIFORNIA — Students at Richard Nixon’s alma mater are used to hearing about the legacy of their most famous alumnus. But no one at Whittier College knew quite what to say about a discovery student journalists made in the newspaper office this spring.
A routine maintenance call on Feb. 21 turned up an electronic surveillance device imbedded in the office walls of the Quaker Campus. It is not known how long the bug, which was not functioning when pulled from the wall, was hidden.
Nixon was known for surreptitiously tape recording many of his Oval Office conversations. The former president was also forced to resign from office as a result of the Watergate scandal, which was triggered by the bugging of Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington.
The Quaker Campus‘ discovery prompted a shared sense of disbelief and concern among the newspaper staff and the university’s administration.
“We were very concerned that someone would try to interfere with the right of our student journalists — or any student for that matter — to exchange ideas freely,” President Katherine Haley Will said in a statement. “It was a violation of everything that we think is important.”
The episode began when a maintenance worker, in the newspaper office to fix a broken light table, found a problem with the electrical socket. Upon taking it apart, he discovered a two-inch surveillance device soldered to the back of the socket, editor Amy Stice said.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s sweep of the building revealed no more bugs. But student government president Jess Craven, whose office is located in the building, was concerned enough to contact local private investigator Thomas Barnes.
Barnes, a retired police detective and former military officer, decided to help the newspaper staff, lending a scanner to check the office for additional surveillance devices. He also used his political clout to “light a fire” under the local police, who, according to Stice and Barnes, were initially reluctant to pursue the case.
The Whittier Police Department subsequently took up the case. With Barnes’ help, they were able to ascertain the age of the technology — between 10 and 15 years old — but their investigation into the culprit behind the bug eventually ran into a brick wall.
“I did a lengthy investigation in that I tried to locate people that had a historical knowledge of the campus newspaper office during the time frame that is consistent with [the bug’s] technology,” said Detective Joe Rivera, who is also a former security officer at Whittier College. “Some of the thoughts that were shared by some of the people I talked to was that the campus security director during that time might have known something about it. Well, I tried to find him and he’s nowhere to be found. He moved out of state. So that kind of left me at a dead end.”
Even if a culprit were found, police would not be able to prosecute since the statute of limitations has expired, he said.
The case is now classified as a “suspended investigation,” which means that police have no more leads to pursue.
“As disappointed as we are that nothing came out of it, I understand their reasons for closing the case,” Stice said. “We hadn’t been getting anywhere for a while.”
The identity of the culprit seems destined to remain a mystery.
“I just can’t imagine who would want to know what the editors of the newspaper are talking about,” Rivera said. “Your imagination can run wild with that. It could be any number of people.”
For the staff of the Quaker Campus, the stalled investigation is something of an anticlimactic finish to one of their most exciting news stories in years.
“Initially we were really excited, but it died out pretty quickly,” said Stice. “We had other things to worry about.”