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3 lose school jobs in slaying cover-up

The head of Eastern Michigan University is fired; two officials must resign. They had said no foul play was suspected.

July 17, 2007|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — Eastern Michigan University has fired President John A. Fallon III and dismissed two other top officials, less than two weeks after a federal investigation found that administrators broke the law by covering up the rape and slaying of a student in her dorm room.

The head of police on the Ypsilanti campus, Cindy Hall, and the vice president of student affairs, James Vick, were forced to resign, school officials announced Monday afternoon.

A day earlier, the Board of Regents held an emergency telephone conference and unanimously voted to end Fallon's five-year employment contract. School officials said they spent weeks unsuccessfully trying to negotiate with Fallon a suitable punishment for his role in the scandal over the death of Laura Dickinson, 22.

In December, Dickinson's body was found inside her room at Hill Hall. For 10 weeks, university officials told the Dickinson family, students and the community that no foul play was suspected.

School officials did not acknowledge that Dickinson had been slain until student Orange Amir Taylor III was arrested Feb. 23 and charged with murder and sexual assault.

An Education Department report and a separate investigation commissioned by the regents concluded that the university staff had violated the federal Clery Act, which requires colleges and universities to disclose information about campus crimes and warn students of threats to their safety.

Some university officials did not know there was a criminal investigation and unknowingly passed along misinformation, according to both reports. But others, including Vick and Hall, consciously decided to not warn students or tell Dickinson's family that they believed she was the victim of a crime, according to the regents' independent investigation.

The federal report also said Dickinson's death exposed problems in the school's reporting of campus crimes. One example: School officials labeled eight cases of sexual assault as "nonforcible" encounters in campus crime statistics. Those figures are often used by parents and would-be students when weighing college choices.

"As a university, we've gone through enough pain," said regent James Stapleton on Monday. "There was a breakdown in the fundamental governance of this school, and these staffing changes had to happen."

Regents have appointed Provost Donald M. Loppnow as executive vice president. He will act as the school's chief executive as officials try to find an interim president before classes begin in September, Stapleton said.

For months, Eastern Michigan has been dogged by bad press because of the murder case and a staff strike over soured contract negotiations.

Vick said Monday that he didn't regret his actions.

He had told the Dickinson family that no foul play was suspected in Laura's death. He also had directed school staff to shred a police report about the investigation into Dickinson's death as part of "damage control," according to a 568-page report for the regents by the Detroit law firm of Butzel Long.

"I didn't do anything wrong. I stand by what I've done," said Vick, 59.

He said that he had become a scapegoat for the university's Board of Regents and that he had taken a polygraph test showing that he was innocent of the allegations.

"I'd like to return to E.M.U., but that's not going to be possible now," Vick said.

"Sometimes stuff happens and you have to deal with it, I suppose."

Fallon could not be reached for comment Monday.

The Ann Arbor News in Michigan reported that Fallon said he had relied solely on Vick for information about the case.

"I am disappointed in this hastily called meeting, without any opportunity to be present or to respond," he told the newspaper Sunday.

Hall did not return calls for comment Monday.

The Butzel Long report found that she had told school staff members -- and at least one of her own officers -- that they should not deviate from the assertion that no foul play was suspected.

She told them to describe their efforts as a "death investigation" rather than a "homicide investigation" while officers searched for the perpetrator.

The fallout from Dickinson's death has stunned the community of Ypsilanti, a suburb of 22,000 southwest of Detroit. Students taking classes this summer say the mood is grim.

"It's all anyone's talking about," said Jessica Richardson, 19, a junior studying political science. "The reaction? Shock."

One of the concerns is whether, or how, the federal government will penalize the school. In violating the law, board officials say, the university could face financial sanctions.

Fallon has repeatedly said that university staff members misled him and that he was unaware that Dickinson's death was a homicide. In the months that followed the discovery of Dickinson's body, Fallon told the public and local media that university officials did not suspect a crime.

Late last month, after Fallon issued a public apology, he met with Dickinson's parents, Bob and Deb, for the first time at the family's cafe in Hastings, Mich.

Bob Dickinson said Fallon cried and told them that he was sorry.

"Deb told him that what they did really hurt our family. That every day, she wakes up and has to choose to forgive him, because it's the only way she thinks it'll help ease the pain," said Dickinson, 51.

"So far, we're still hurting."

p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

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