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Professor Is Charged in Alleged Hoax

Claremont McKenna instructor is accused of staging hate crime. She maintains innocence.

April 27, 2004|Stuart Silverstein and Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writers

A visiting psychology professor at Claremont McKenna College was formally charged by prosecutors Monday in connection with an alleged hate-crime hoax that had triggered antiracism protests and a one-day shutdown of the Claremont Colleges in March.

The Los Angeles County district attorney's office charged Kerri Dunn, 39, with one misdemeanor count of filing a false police report and two felony counts of insurance fraud.

Prosecutors alleged Dunn had falsely reported that an unknown vandal spray-painted her car with racist and anti-Semitic slurs on March 9, while she attended a campus forum on racism. Officials also said Dunn submitted a false insurance claim, never paid, for items supposedly taken from her 1990 Honda Civic and for damage to the car, which had its windows smashed and tires slashed.

Dunn is scheduled to surrender to authorities at Los Angeles County Superior Court in Pomona on May 19, the date of her arraignment.

If convicted, Dunn could face probation to up to three years in state prison, prosecutors said.

In a statement, Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said: "False accusations that imply hate crimes prey on the legitimate concerns of the public who truly abhor violence based on race, ethnicity or sexual orientation. And those who make false claims should realize there is a penalty for doing so."

Reached by phone Monday at her home in Redlands, Dunn declined to comment.

Her lawyer, Gary S. Lincenberg, also declined to be interviewed. But he issued a news release saying that Dunn "maintains her innocence and hopes that this case will not divert attention from the racism problems on the Claremont College campuses."

The incident, which drew national attention, is among the latest of more than 20 suspected or confirmed hate-crime hoaxes on American college campuses since the late 1990s. Police concluded a week after the Claremont Colleges incident that it was a hoax staged by Dunn, but no charges were lodged until Monday.

FBI spokeswoman Laura Bosley said that federal authorities were continuing to investigate the case and that Dunn could face federal charges of making false statements to FBI investigators who had worked on the case.

When the damage to Dunn's car originally was reported, she and student activists linked the incident to a string of racially charged episodes on the Claremont campuses. Earlier this year, four students stole an 11-foot cross from an art class and set it afire. Later, a student discovered a racial slur written on a picture of George Washington Carver, a black agricultural scientist.

Dunn is a white woman who has spoken publicly about how she is studying to convert from Catholicism to Judaism, and who has urged students to fight racism.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Martin Bean, who will prosecute the case, said the charges were based largely on the accounts of eyewitnesses and inconsistencies in Dunn's statements to police. The Claremont Police Department had said that two witnesses told officers that they had seen Dunn vandalizing her vehicle.

Authorities said Dunn originally had claimed that $1,700 in property, including a CD player and a briefcase, was stolen from her car in the Claremont incident, but she later told investigators the items had turned up.

Bean said he planned to call the witnesses to testify at Dunn's preliminary hearing, when a judge will decide if there is enough evidence for her to be tried.

"I hope that prosecuting someone who commits a hoax will help deter others from doing this sort of thing in the future," said Bean, who works in the district attorney's Pomona office.

Claremont McKenna President Pamela Gann said in a statement that the school welcomed the filing of charges. She said school officials "continue to believe that the best resolution of these events will be determined through a prosecution of the individual or individuals responsible for the vandalism."

Until going on leave in March, Dunn had taught at the college for a year and a half. Her contract was to expire in May. Dunn had filled in for psychology department faculty members on sabbatical. This semester she was teaching introduction to psychology and social psychology classes.

Gann said Dunn remains on a paid leave. But, she said, she could not comment further because "criminal proceedings are ongoing."

At Claremont McKenna and the six other undergraduate and graduate institutions in the Claremont consortium about 35 miles east of Los Angeles, few students and faculty had heard about the charges as of late Monday.

But Marc S. Bathgate, who is president of student government at Claremont McKenna, predicted that the news probably would provide some relief at the campuses, which have been unsettled by this year's events.

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