Not-so-smooth criminals

Newspaper theft culprits found out the hard way this year that theirattempts to cover up information about a crime by committing another crime candraw more attention to it and some college administrators and law enforcementofficials are taking such crimes more seriously.

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

On Feb. 11, the weekly student newspaper at the StateUniversity of New York at New Paltz printed a front-page article about across country team coach who had been charged with rape. The day the story wasprinted, 2,500 copies of the New Paltz Oracle were stolen. Cross countryteam 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 ofhis contributions, despite the condemning reaction of the community. He said heis willing to accept the consequences for the “good” that came of his crime. TheOracle estimates about $2,600 in printing and advertising costs were lostdue to the theft. The total print run is 3,500.

College spokesman EricGullickson said administrators take the reported theft very seriously because itconflicts with the school’s educational mission of “free inquiry andexpression,” and a few areas of the school’s judicial code, including “propertydamage and destruction.”

When four fraternity members attempted to concealtheir crime by stealing 3,000 copies of Arkansas State University‘sstudent newspaper, the theft gained national media coverage. On Jan. 24 theHerald featured a front-page article about a minor who was hospitalizedfor alcohol poisoning after attending a party at the Sigma Chi fraternity house.The four fraternity members admitted they took the papers, returned them andpaid $510 in reimbursement on Jan. 27.

Dean of Student Affairs Roger Lee saidArkansas State University began an investigation with a hearing process throughthe campus judicial system, but Herald adviser Bonnie Thrasher said thefinancial reimbursement and apologies were “punishment enough,” and she had thepolice drop the investigation and not charge the culprits.

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

Additionally, “there is monetaryvalue as well as informational value,” in the stolen newspapers, he said. In hisexperience at Arkansas State University, he said, newspaper theft is not in the”prank category,” and is usually committed in order to “stifle information” thatthe media relay.

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

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

Ryan said the Eastern Illinois band director apologizedand 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 becauseof 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 thetheft.

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

Attempting to conceal a crime bycommitting a crime brought nothing but more attention to the stories somenewspaper thieves were trying to hide.

Based on his experience at ArkansasState University, Lee said stealing newspapers is “a pretty cowardly act.” Asfar as attempting to stifle information about the crime that the newspaperreports on, he added, newspaper theft is usually “ineffective all the wayaround,” because it does not actually conceal the information printed.

EricGullickson said the SUNY at New Paltz administration is using the experience ofa 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 itfurther down the road.

“The [newspaper thieves] wanted to protect someonewho they had an alliance with, and very often that knee-jerk reaction is notnecessarily the best and most productive way to go about things,” he said.”Especially when it involves something like this, when you’re depriving allthese people of this vehicle for expression,” Gullickson added.

At EasternIllinois 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 themarching band and friends would have been smart, they would have just been quietas hell,” Ryan said. “By stealing them, they brought a lot of attention onthemselves.”