N.Y. college student steals newspapers reporting coach’s rape charges

NEW YORK — A news article about a cross country team coach charged with rape may have caused the Feb. 11 theft of more than 2,000 copies of the weekly student newspaper at the State University of New York at New Paltz, the paper’s editors say. Cross country team member Jason Letts admitted responsibility for stealing about 300 newspapers, but the other papers are unaccounted for.

According to the Oracle, about 2,500 out of a total 3,500 copies of the New Paltz Oracle were stolen from residence halls and academic buildings, in what the newspaper called an “attempt to suppress the article.” The Oracle estimates about $2,600 in printing and advertising costs were lost due to the theft.

According to the article, former coach Steve Axelson was arrested at the beginning of February and charged with third-degree rape and endangering the welfare of a child. These charges stem from an alleged sexual relationship he had with a former student he had coached at New Paltz High School three years ago, the newspaper reported. He pled not guilty to the charges, and was released on $1,000 bail. Following his arrest, Axelson resigned from his position.

Letts said he stole the newspapers as a show of support for his former coach.

“I attempted to demonstrate for my coach, who was greatly disturbed by the Oracle‘s lack of sensitivity and the ordeal in general, that he was still valued for all of his contributions despite the condemning reaction of the community,” Letts said.

The Oracle’s editor in chief Ellen Thompson and sports editor Danny Wild filed a report with the university police after finding that copies of the newspaper had been stolen.

College spokesman Eric Gullickson said college administrators are mediating the resolution process, and they take the reported theft very seriously. When the theft was reported to the campus police, Gullickson said the campus administration made “every legal means of recourse available” to the newspaper.

“In this case the aggrieved party obviously is not only the staff members of the Oracle, but also the entire campus community, because the newspaper is a vehicle of free expression,” Gullickson said.

There is a range of possible sanctions against Jason Letts if theft charges are upheld, including restitution of the newspaper’s losses. Letts said what he did is worth the punishment.

“I know what I did was not correct, but I stand by my reasons, and for the good that came of it I am willing to accept the consequences,” he said.

Gullickson said the administration can not make a statement regarding what the punishment will be until the judicial process is complete.

The college administration met with the Oracle staff and Letts on Feb. 24 to begin the judicial process.

Since the theft was filed with the judicial system, Thompson said she is concerned that the staff of the Oracle has “no way of knowing if the student has been reprimanded and if so, what the punishment will be.”

Journalism professor Howard Good said the culprits of this crime should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and “need counseling on what the proper response is to something [they] disagree with.”

“The proper way in a democracy to resolve disagreements is not through censorship or violence but through dialogue,” Good said. “It’s a real failure of our education system that people on a college campus don’t realize that.”

–By Diane Krauthamer