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Claremont Professor's Past Is a New Puzzle

April 05, 2004|Nora Zamichow | Times Staff Writer

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.

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