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Claremont Hate Crime Called Hoax

Police say a professor damaged her own car, but she denies it. Last week's incident sparked anti-racism rallies.

March 18, 2004|Joy Buchanan, Kristina Sauerwein and Stuart Silverstein | Times Staff Writers

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."

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