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Arrest of Suspect Brings Relief to College Campus

Times Staff Writers

School’s out, and Alea Hunter, a history major at Louisiana State University, said Wednesday that she has achieved her goal: “To keep myself alive.”

This is not what college is supposed to be, but that’s how it’s been ever since police linked the violent deaths of three southern Louisiana women and announced that a serial killer was on the loose.

The yearlong nightmare apparently ended Tuesday, when a truck driver from nearby St. Francisville, La., was arrested in Atlanta, where he fled last week.

Derrick Todd Lee, 34, was flown back here Wednesday after he waived extradition. He has been formally charged with first-degree murder and aggravated rape in the March death of LSU graduate student Carrie Lynn Yoder, and attempted rape and attempted murder in connection with another attack. Officials plan to charge him in four more deaths soon.

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On the LSU campus Wednesday, there was both a sense of relief and loss.

“College is supposed to be fun,” said Vimla Rupnarain, 19, a sophomore from Mandeville, La., north of New Orleans.

“You walk around campus. You see your friends. You go to class,” said Rupnarain, who was walking with a friend in the quad talking about next year’s classes. “You’re not supposed to be worrying about serial killers.”

Four of the victims tied to a single killer lived on or near the LSU campus, and fear has gripped Baton Rouge and the university community for months.

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The sales of guns and pepper spray spiked, women reported leaning chairs against their double-locked doors at night and many students traveled only in large groups.

Until last year, the school offered just one self-defense class per year, and about 15 people attended. Now, LSU offers six classes and 60 people attend each one, said Charlotte Pringle, an instructor and an office manager in the university’s Wellness Education Department.

“I’m an accounting major. I never expected to learn about mace,” said Erin Robison, 19, of Opelousas, La. Robison spoke as she walked near the campus on a sunny, humid afternoon. LSU is largely deserted this week since the spring semester’s classes have ended, and summer school hasn’t begun. Robison still carried her mace canister in her hand.

“Where I’m from, my parents sometimes don’t even lock the door,” she said.

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Calls to campus police about “suspicious activity” more than doubled from the first quarter of 2002 to the first quarter of 2003, said LSU Police Capt. Ricky Adams. Some of those calls were legitimate -- but several came from students questioning something as commonplace as a construction crew.

“It was a routine construction job,” Adams said.

Those calls proved that campus administrators and police were doing their job, Adams said, through increased security and awareness campaigns, such as plastic-covered cards containing emergency telephone numbers, designed to be snapped onto the zippers of backpacks.

“That was ideal,” Adams said of the false calls. “It was people taking ownership of the community. We’re going to continue to encourage that. We have to make sure people don’t let down their guard now that this man is in custody.”

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Pringle, too, said she hoped interest in the self-defense classes doesn’t ebb with word of the arrest.

“It’s not like he’s the only criminal out there,” she said.

“This was a wake-up call for women here. People thought they were young and nothing was going to happen to them. This made young women realize that this can happen anywhere, that it’s happening to people they knew or had contact with.”

There were already signs that keeping that message alive might be difficult now that Lee is in custody.

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Rupnarain and a friend, Amanda Marshall, 19, also of Mandeville, had planned on living during the next school year in a gated community. On Wednesday, the duo started looking for an apartment community with easier access -- without a gate.

“I was so excited,” Rupnarain said of the arrest. “Now it’s like it’s all over. We can go on with our lives.”

Hunter, 22, a fitness buff from Eagle River, Alaska, used to “run the lakes” every day -- a campus term for jogging near a picturesque lake on campus.

“I hadn’t been running alone for almost a year,” Hunter said. “When I found out [about the arrest], I ran the lakes by myself. It was the best feeling in the world. Yes, I was carrying the mace. But I felt free for the first time in months.”

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Hart reported from Baton Rouge, Gold from Houston. Times staff writer Ken Ellingwood in Atlanta contributed to this report.


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