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A killing kept in the shadows

Times Staff Writer

As most students at Eastern Michigan University were heading home for the holidays in December, the school put out a news release announcing that student Laura Dickinson had unexpectedly passed away in her dorm room.

There was no foul play, the school said. Staff members assured worried students they were safe. The campus fell into mourning, with candlelight vigils for the lanky 22-year-old member of the crew team.

Neither students nor Laura’s parents knew that investigators had found a grisly scene in Room 518 of Hill Hall.

Dickinson’s body was on the carpeted floor, naked from the waist down. A pillow covered her head and traces of semen were on her leg.

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For 10 weeks, neither her family nor fellow students knew that authorities were investigating several suspects as part of a criminal inquiry into Dickinson’s death. Then, on Feb. 23, Orange Amir Taylor III, an Eastern Michigan student, was arrested.

Only then did the university acknowledge that Dickinson had been raped and killed in her dorm room by someone who took her keys and locked the door when he left.

The school’s secretiveness has left many students and residents of this suburb southwest of Detroit, with a population of 22,000, shaken and outraged. For many, this bucolic campus -- founded in the mid-1800s to train teachers -- had been violated.

The school “lied to us,” Laura’s father, Bob Dickinson, said. “They let us bury her thinking that a healthy 22-year-old girl died by some freak accident.”

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School officials will not say why they kept silent. But some parents and people in the community believe administrators endangered students in an effort to protect the university’s image.

An independent investigation initiated by the school’s Board of Regents agrees. In a 568-page report released this month, investigators with the Detroit law firm of Butzel Long detail how school officials violated the Clery Act, a federal law requiring colleges and universities to disclose information about campus crimes and warn students of threats to their safety.

The report, as well as court documents, show that Eastern Michigan University police either suspected or believed all along that this was a homicide.

Some university officials did not know there was a criminal investigation, and unknowingly passed along misinformation, according to the Butzel Long report. Others made a conscious decision to not warn the public or tell the Dickinsons.

University President John A. Fallon III said he was unaware that the death was a homicide. Fallon repeatedly told the public and local media that university officials did not suspect a crime.

James Vick, vice president of student affairs who oversees the school’s housing and campus police, told the Dickinson family that no foul play was suspected in Laura’s death. He also directed, in “damage-control mode,” that school staff shred a police report about the investigation, according to the report.

Fallon did not return calls for comment.

Vick, who denies the allegations, has become a designated scapegoat, his lawyer Thomas C. Manchester wrote in a Wednesday letter to the Board of Regents. The letter says that Vick, eager to clear his name, has taken a polygraph test which shows he is telling the truth.

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The U.S. Department of Education is looking into whether the school violated the 1990 Clery Act, which takes its name from the 1986 death of Jeanne Clery, who was raped and killed in her residence hall room at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. Though the department has conducted 70 similar inquiries since October 2003, only three institutions have been fined under the law.

For Bob Dickinson, 51, the search for answers has been exhausting. Behind the counter of the family’s coffee shop in Hastings, Mich., he faces pitying looks from customers as he froths milk and works the espresso machine.

It’s a routine that has stretched on for months here inside State Grounds Coffee House, where photographs Laura took while traveling with her boyfriend, Travis Scott, line one wall: the sun rising over a lake in the upper peninsula of Michigan, waves crashing on the coast of Washington, a wild horse gazing on the plains of Wyoming.

After Laura earned her associate’s degree from Grand Rapids Community College, she decided to get a bachelor’s degree in nutrition.

“We wanted her to stay close. She didn’t want to go too far away,” Dickinson said. “Eastern had a very good nutrition program and was close enough for her to drive home on the weekends.”

In September, the family drove the two hours southeast to Eastern’s campus in Ypsilanti and her new home at Hill Hall, a 10-story brick high-rise.

Dickinson and his wife, Deb, gave Laura some last-minute advice before they left: Make lots of friends. Call if you get lonely. And always keep the door locked.

She followed their guidance. She joined the novice crew team, spending her mornings sweating on the water and her evenings hanging out with teammates.

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The night Laura died, she attended a team Christmas party where they swapped “Secret Santa” gifts. It was Dec. 12 -- a Tuesday -- and finals week. Some neighbors in Hill Hall were cramming for exams; others had already left for winter break.

Video surveillance cameras show that she returned to Hill Hall at 11:12 p.m., carrying a stuffed toy inside a red-and-green holiday gift bag.

In her room, Laura called Scott at Covanta Energy in Grand Rapids, Mich., where he worked as an engineer. It was the last time she used her phone.

When she failed to show up for exams, friends and family grew concerned and began calling her cellphone. For two days, there was no answer.

On Friday morning, Bob Dickinson contacted the university housing department and Scott decided to drive to campus. But it was a custodian, answering an odor complaint from one of Laura’s Hill Hall neighbors, who opened the door to Room 518 and found her body.

Laura’s slaying came at a time when Eastern Michigan University -- which has churned through three presidents in three years -- had spent months dogged by bad press and scandal.

In 2004, state auditors found that the university had under-reported the budget of, and failed to get state approval for, a $6-million mansion for its president at that time.

The controversy fueled a two-week staff strike in September. Days before Laura was killed, three of the school’s eight regents resigned, citing a campus culture of “distrust and open animosity.”

In this tense climate, the school made public assurances about Laura’s death. But school police were interviewing at least three men as suspects -- including her boyfriend, Scott, and Taylor. They cleared Scott, but Taylor, who told campus police he had previously roamed through dorms to steal electronics, remained on their list of people to watch.

As the investigation progressed, semen samples taken from Laura’s body and her bed matched Taylor’s DNA. Surveillance cameras showed Taylor sneaking into Hill Hall in the early hours of Dec. 13 -- and leaving 90 minutes later, with one of Laura’s gift bags in hand.

Dr. Bader J. Cassin, the Washtenaw County medical examiner who conducted Laura’s autopsy, ruled that Laura probably died of asphyxiation, according to court testimony.

Some physical details that might have shown how she died were not present, because of the body’s advanced state of decomposition, according to court records. Some media reports surmised that Laura, who had experienced stress-related cardiac arrhythmia in the past, may have died from a heart attack.

Taylor was arrested on Feb. 23 and charged with open murder, larceny, home invasion and two counts of sexual criminal conduct. He has pleaded not guilty and is being held in County Jail without bond. He is expected to go on trial this fall in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Stephen Gillers, professor of legal ethics at New York University’s School of Law, said there were legitimate reasons why administrators and school police would not comment on the details of a case, particularly early in an investigation.

But to lie to the parents of the victim is “an abdication of every responsibility a university administration has,” Gillers said.

“There’s no reason for law enforcement to fear that keeping the parents informed will frustrate the ability to apprehend the perpetrator,” said Gillers, a former vice dean of NYU’s law school. “This is not the theft of a computer. It’s the death of a child.”

In the weeks after Taylor’s arrest, school officials held public meetings to let students air their complaints. “I was specifically told I was not in danger, that we weren’t in danger, and unless you guys already had a guy in custody, we were in danger,” student Jaclyn Armstrong said in one meeting, according to the school newspaper, the Eastern Echo. “And the fact that he is being charged with criminal sexual assault, not only were our lives in danger, but we were in danger of many other things.”

The Board of Regents is meeting on campus today to discuss the case and possible administration staff changes, said James Stapleton, who led the subcommittee of regents in commissioning the Butzel Long report.

“Clearly, the report shows that the university has a lack of protective systems and policies in place,” Stapleton said. “It’s tough, but it’s a completely dysfunctional culture at EMU. And we are going to change that culture.”

p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com


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