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A killing kept in the shadows

June 19, 2007|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

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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