A week after a reported campus hate crime drew national attention, sparked protests and shut down the prestigious Claremont Colleges, police on Wednesday called the incident a hoax staged by a professor who slashed tires, shattered windows and spray-painted racist graffiti on her own car.
Claremont McKenna College psychology professor Kerri Dunn, who had told police that her car was vandalized as she spoke at a March 9 forum on racism, was identified by two eyewitnesses as the person who damaged the auto, authorities said Wednesday.
She was not arrested, but Claremont Police Lt. Stan Van Horn said the case would be sent to the Los Angeles County district attorney for review and that the likely charge would be filing a false police report, a misdemeanor. The FBI said she might face more serious felony charges of lying to federal investigators.
Campus leaders last week had condemned the vandalism as a hate crime, shut down the Claremont consortium of colleges for a day of anti-hate rallies and called in FBI investigators. The police contention that Dunn staged the incident triggered a wave of anger against her Wednesday and fears that students would become cynical about racism.
Dunn, 39, is a white woman who has spoken publicly about how she was considering converting from Catholicism to Judaism and has urged students to fight racism. On Wednesday, Dunn denied police claims and said she was “enraged” by their comments.
“This is like a very big deal if they think I’m a suspect,” Dunn said in the doorway of her Redlands home. “I didn’t want any of this from the beginning. This is so overshadowing the bigger problem on campus, which is that the administration has turned its head regularly on hate speech and hate crimes.”
Claremont McKenna College President Pamela Gann said the idea that Dunn vandalized her own car came as “a shock and a surprise.” Gann said that Dunn’s continued employment at the school was under review but that the college remained committed to “academic freedom and free speech.”
At the time of the incident, Dunn and student activists connected the alleged attack with a string of racially charged incidents on the Claremont campuses. Earlier this year, four students stole an 11-foot cross from an art class and set it afire. The next month, a student discovered a racial slur written on a picture of George Washington Carver, a black agricultural scientist.
Classes at the Claremont Colleges were out for spring break Wednesday, but word of the police account troubled students. “It’s a hard situation to grasp,” said Josh Keough, 21, a Claremont McKenna senior. “People are in a state of disbelief. We should keep an open mind.”
Others had harsher things to say.
Andrew McDavid, editor of the Claremont Student monthly campus newspaper, said he felt “manipulated.”
“I had considered the possibility that someone might be doing this to make a point about racism on the campuses,” McDavid said. “But I dismissed that as a bit of a conspiracy theory.”
McDavid said students would be angry when they returned next week. “This really fouled up classes before spring break,” McDavid said. “But at the same time, there were some good conversations that came out of this, and it will make people less credulous in the future.”
Katherine Lind, chairwoman of the Claremont Committee on Human Relations, a city agency, said she was upset by the news but that her biggest concern was that students would be discouraged by the outcome of the investigation. “What they did -- the rallies, the forums -- was really inspiring,” she said. “Their passion was a lesson for us all.
“I urge the students to continue to articulate their problems and not let this incident dissuade them in any way,” Lind said.
According to Dunn’s account last week, she arrived at her office in Seaman Hall about 5:15 p.m. and began preparing a lecture for a forum on racism at Scripps College. Shortly after 8 p.m., when she went to move her car closer to Scripps, a campus a quarter of a mile away, she found the car vandalized.
Dunn said someone had spray-painted “shut up” on the hood of her car, as well as racist and anti-Semitic slurs on the roof and sides of the vehicle. She speculated that she was being targeted for her outspoken views and that she suspected the crime was committed by one of her students or a friend of one of her students.
At the time, Dunn said she asked passersby if they had seen what had happened. They said no.
After seeing the damaged car, Dunn said, she ran to the site of the Scripps forum and told people what had happened. Someone called the police and a colleague walked her back to her car.
In a statement released Wednesday, the Claremont Police Department said two witnesses had “positively identified the victim as vandalizing her own vehicle. Additionally, interviews with the alleged victim revealed inconsistencies in her statement regarding the incident.”
Claremont police declined to elaborate. But sources also said that while Dunn first had claimed $1,700 worth of property, including a CD player and a briefcase, was stolen from her 1992 Honda Civic, she later told investigators the items had turned up.
Cheryl Mimura, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles office of the FBI, said no federal hate crime charges will be filed against Dunn, but that she could face charges of making false statements to a federal officer, which is a felony. That will be a decision for the U.S. attorney’s office, Mimura said.
Dunn’s attorney said the conduct of police in the case was troubling.
“No. 1, the idea that the police would publicly discuss their investigation is outrageous,” said attorney Gary Lincenberg. “No. 2, it is an outrageous and sad twist to victimize a person who was trying to speak out against hate crimes. I don’t know who vandalized her car, but I know it wasn’t her.”
According to the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, Dunn received a law degree from the school in May 1998 and a PhD in psychology in December 2002. She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Cal State San Bernardino.
Before heading to Claremont McKenna, Dunn worked for more than a year as a consultant in the Los Angeles office of Trial Behavior Consulting, which advises law firms and corporate clients. She specialized in jury research.
College president Gann said Dunn has taught at the college for a year and a half and that her current contract as a visiting assistant psychology professor ends this spring. Gann said no decision had been made on Dunn’s continued employment at the college. Dunn has filled in for members of the psychology department on sabbatical and this semester is teaching Introduction to Psychology and Social Psychology.
“Until this incident occurred, there’s been no reason to question anything about her professional performance,” Gann said.
“Her teaching evaluations for her time here have been quite fine. She’s been a good colleague, and she’s been very supportive of students and their research, and outside related activities.”
Roman Marenin, 20, a junior at Claremont McKenna, said he had a class with Dunn last year. “She was awesome. She wasn’t one of those professors who talked down to students. She was very passionate.”
But when he heard the news that police suspected her of vandalizing her own car, he just kept shaking his head.
“I hope it’s not true,” he said.
Experts said such incidents can have lasting and unanticipated impacts on a community.
Lee Ross, a social psychologist on the faculty at Stanford University, said that if Dunn is proven to have committed the vandalism, the professor may still have raised people’s awareness about racism. “One ironic thing is that doing this may actually have accomplished some of her goals, if her goal was to make people feel that racism was present and that there was danger of white backlash,” Ross said.
Ross also discussed the possible motive of someone perpetrating a hoax.
“Sometimes people invent facts because they believe that the conclusion that it would lead people to is true,” he said. “So they convince themselves that, in some deep way, they’re not really lying or they’re not really being dishonest because the message they’re conveying is one that’s true.”
In Claremont, student organizers worried that the news would sour classmates on campus activism.
“I’m just afraid that all that community spirit is going to be lost and become cynicism and anger,” said Warren Katzenstein, 21, student body president of Harvey Mudd College.
Staff writers Monte Morin, Lance Pugmire, Arlene Martinez, Andrew Blankstein, Richard Winton and Seema Mehta contributed to this report.