Claremont Professor’s Past Is a New Puzzle
Kerri Dunn taught criminal justice but she was a shoplifter. While earning a PhD in psychology, she was ordered into counseling for stealing.
Dunn, 39, was a hero to many students at Claremont McKenna College, lifting her voice for the oppressed. Then she became the professor who may have betrayed them.
She railed against hate crimes. Now she is suspected of staging one.
Dunn -- a Catholic converting to Judaism -- prided herself on being passionate and outspoken. But court records and interviews with colleagues, students, friends and police reveal a woman of contradiction and secrets.
Dunn had returned from a campus forum on racial intolerance March 9 and found her car spray-painted with slurs, the windows smashed and tires punctured. A hate crime, authorities said. A week later, Claremont police alleged that Dunn, who has a law degree, had done it herself.
Dunn has denied any wrongdoing and declined to comment for this story. The FBI and the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office are investigating.
Gary S. Lincenberg, her California attorney, will not comment on the alleged hate crime or on her police record. James Michael Rierden, an attorney in Nebraska who represented Dunn for an arrest four years ago, said she pleaded guilty to shoplifting, paid a $200 fine and agreed to counseling.
“I was surprised,” Rierden recalled. “In light of ... her going to law school, I found it even harder to understand -- just the risk she was taking as far as her legal career. I felt, ‘We have a pattern here [for shoplifting] and maybe she needs help.’ ”
Pam Manske, a friend of Dunn’s, chalked up the shoplifting to high jinks. “She’d been a student -- sometimes students do goofy things,” said the commercial real estate agent.
Dunn’s sister declined to be interviewed for this story and other family members did not return calls.
Students and colleagues at the Claremont Colleges said their questions about Kerri Frances Dunn might go unanswered.
John Seery, a professor of politics at Pomona College, said: “It looks as if we were punked.”
A Cross Burning
As a psychology teacher at Claremont McKenna College, Dunn was passionate and engaging, and railed against discrimination.
Since January at the Claremont Colleges, four students had burned an 11-foot cross and someone had scrawled a racial slur on a calendar with a picture of George Washington Carver, a black agricultural scientist.
Dunn told her classes on March 8 that she was upset by their apathy. What’s it going to take? Dunn demanded angrily.
Antoine Grant, 18, a freshman, remembered it this way: “She was mad that we weren’t mad. She said we needed to stand up.”
The next day, Dunn spoke from the audience at the campus forum on hate crimes. Shortly before 8 p.m., she went to move her car and later told police that was when she first saw the vandalism.
Casey Pick, a 19-year-old sophomore, was walking to a women’s symposium later that night when Dunn stopped her. Pick thought Dunn seemed dazed. Dunn asked for directions, and the two women walked together. Dunn did not mention her car, Pick said, but seemed nervous and frightened.
Dunn was scheduled to speak, Pick said, but told the group she could not because her car had just been vandalized. Someone called campus police, and Pick walked Dunn to her car.
“It was appalling,” Pick said. “Glass was everywhere, and she was visibly shaken.” Pick remembered that Dunn asked her several times to read the graffiti aloud.
Pick helped organize one of the campus rallies held later that week.
“I looked into her eyes, and I know she couldn’t possibly have done this to herself,” she said.
A day after her car was damaged, Dunn spoke with The Times.
“I’m the No. 1 person who’s been speaking out, and it [the graffiti wording] said, ‘Shut up,’ that’s what led me to believe it was targeted toward me,” Dunn said.
How would vandals have known her Honda?
“They could have easily seen me walking to my car,” Dunn said.
Dunn said she believed it was one of her students or a friend of a student. She was converting to Judaism, something her students would know. One slur was anti-Semitic.
“The bummer of the whole thing,” said Dunn at the time, was having to rent a car.
Word of the vandalism spread quickly. Classes were canceled at five of the Claremont Colleges. Most people were stunned.
Dunn was a sympathetic figure. She stands 5 feet, 4 inches tall and has long brown hair and green eyes. On campus, she donned loose skirts, rather than the suits that some colleagues favored.
So many students didn’t understand the anti-Semitic slur found on Dunn’s car that Hillel, an on-campus Jewish organization, produced a fact sheet explaining the term kike, said Rabbi Leslie Bergson, director of Hillel and the Jewish chaplain for the Claremont Colleges.
It was the first sign to some that the incident didn’t ring true.
A week later, police said they had found two people who had seen Dunn vandalize her own car.
The witnesses are friends of a Claremont McKenna student who was not in any of Dunn’s classes, said Claremont Police Lt. Stan Van Horn. After several days investigating the witnesses, Van Horn said, “We were unable to locate any ulterior motive” for their account.
One of them -- a young woman -- spoke to Jefferson Huang, Claremont McKenna’s dean of students, the day after the vandalism. The woman said she and another person were parked, waiting for a friend, when a car pulled into the adjacent spot. A tree partially hid the car in which they sat.
The young woman told Huang that she and her companion saw a woman get out of the car and puncture her own tires.
They thought “it was really weird,” Huang said, and decided to drive away. As they pulled out, the woman who was puncturing her own tires called out, “Hey, what’s going on?”
Huang said he asked the young woman and her friend to talk to police. “She seemed honest,” Huang said.
Meanwhile, other doubts were raised. “Interviews with the alleged victim revealed inconsistencies in her statement regarding the incident,” according to a police statement. Van Horn declined to elaborate.
Dunn claimed at first that $1,700 in property, including a CD player and a briefcase, had been stolen, said sources who requested anonymity for fear of being disciplined. Dunn later told investigators the items had turned up.
When informed by a reporter that police believed she savaged her own car, Dunn denied the allegation.
“I’m concerned. I’m enraged,” said Dunn, who blamed the campus administration for failing to deal with hate crimes. “They’re making a huge hullabaloo over me, a white woman. What about the African Americans,” being called racial epithets, she asked, “and the Jews dealing with swastikas?”
Pamela Gann, president of Claremont McKenna College, said no swastikas or racist name-calling incidents have been reported in recent years.
Colleagues said the allegation that Dunn lied about the vandalism does not fit with the energetic academician and caring teacher they know.
“There was nothing in her behavior that would have allowed us to predict this,” said Ronald Riggio, a Claremont McKenna psychology professor.
“I’d have bet a million dollars that she wouldn’t do something like this,” said Larry Gaines, chairman of the criminal justice department at Cal State San Bernardino, where Dunn taught criminal justice from January 1991 to June 1992, and for three months in 2002.
“This is a terrorist act, and there’s no way she could have done this,” said Stuart Ellins, chairman of Cal State San Bernardino’s psychology department. Ellins believes Dunn’s left-leaning politics led to the allegations: “She was giving lectures on racism, and people don’t like that. It’s their way of saying, ‘Get out of our community.’ ”
In 1989 and 1992, Dunn earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Cal State San Bernardino, according to campus officials. She went on to receive a law degree in 1998 and a doctorate in psychology in 2002, both from the University of Nebraska, officials there said.
In Lincoln, Neb., Dunn wrote her dissertation on how jurors decide cases. Brian Bornstein, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska, was a member of the committee that reviewed Dunn’s work. “She’s very good,” he said.
Jennifer Groscup, an assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, shared an office at the University of Nebraska with Dunn for three years. They quickly discovered a common bond -- both hailed from New Jersey. They enjoyed meals, movies and music. Simon and Garfunkel were favorites.
“She always put herself out for people,” Groscup said. When Groscup moved, for instance, Dunn hauled boxes. If Groscup was too busy to get lunch, Dunn brought food.
Groscup said she was “absolutely shocked” to learn of the hate crime. “She’s such a nice person, I can’t imagine her provoking that kind of anger in someone else.”
When police said Dunn was a suspect, Groscup didn’t believe it. “I can’t imagine her ever doing something like that.”
Groscup said Dunn had never been at the center of any controversy in Lincoln.
“She does not want to be in the spotlight like that,” Groscup said. “It’s so out of character.”
Run-Ins With the Law
Police and court records show Dunn’s other side.
On Sept. 24, 1999, she was arrested and charged with driving without a license and with fictitious license plates, said Officer Katherine Finnell, a Lincoln police spokeswoman. Dunn paid $75 in fines, said chief prosecutor John McQuinn.
On Dec. 31, 1999, Lincoln police arrested Dunn for shoplifting, Finnell said. On that day, she said, Dunn hid a $30 pink sweater in her purse while she was in the dressing room of a clothing store. A store employee called police, Finnell said.
The charges against Dunn were dismissed in exchange for her paying court costs, McQuinn said.
Less than a year later, on Sept. 29, 2000, a Dillard’s department store employee saw Dunn putting a shoe box in a shopping bag, Finnell said. A police officer found Dunn’s shopping bag contained a pair of red size 7 shoes and some Liz Claiborne jewelry: three bracelets, a necklace and a pair of earrings, Finnell said -- about $141 worth of merchandise from Dillard’s.
Dunn also was carrying $403 worth of steak knives, utility knives and a pair of black size 6 Enzo Angiolini shoes from a store next door, Finnell said.
In a written report, police described Dunn as “belligerent and uncooperative,” refusing to give her name.
Dunn was charged with shoplifting, possession of stolen property and refusal to comply with police, court records show.
Arrest warrants had to be issued after Dunn failed to appear in court for both the shoplifting and license violations, Finnell said.
“It’s interesting that three times she was ticketed and ordered to appear before a judge,” she said, “and all three times she didn’t do it.”
Rierden, Dunn’s Nebraska attorney, said Dunn was embarrassed about shoplifting.
“She seemed like a nice, all-around, all-American girl,” he recalled. “It didn’t seem to be a question of money. I thought, ‘Maybe there’s something that’s beyond me,’ that we needed to get her somebody, a counselor, and try to rectify it.”
On Tuesday, a Times reporter visited Dunn’s house to ask about the shoplifting. She said she would not discuss it.
Gann, the president of Claremont McKenna, said that when college officials interviewed Dunn for her job as a visiting assistant professor, they checked references but that prospective faculty are not asked about a criminal record. Now they might be, she said.
Dunn, who was in her second year of teaching at Claremont McKenna, is now on paid leave. Her contract is up in June.
Gann said the college had offered to pay for repairs of Dunn’s car and would honor that promise unless Dunn is charged.
Either way, said Ellins, the Cal State San Bernardino psychology department chairman, “her career is destroyed, even if she’s innocent.”
Jessica Roundy, a 22-year-old senior and student in Dunn’s psychology class, said: “The hardest part is knowing that we may never know.”
Times staff writers Monte Morin, Joy Buchanan and Lance Pugmire contributed to this report.