Content warning: discussion of traumatic events
Real names withheld at the discretion of the Catalyst to protect the privacy of individuals affected by this situation.
“Julia” was doing laundry on a Saturday afternoon in late September when she heard someone walk into the common area of her room. Julia first thought that he was a maintenance worker, but she soon realized something was up when he asked about how to apply to New College.
“I was like, ‘Hello, what are you doing here?’ And I think he kind of knew that he wasn’t supposed to be here,” Julia said.
Julia focused on getting him out of her room. After some dialogue, he finally left. She immediately contacted administrators and then called the police.
“That’s not somebody that could possibly be serious about how to get into college, you know, asking questions like that,” Campus Police Captain Kathleen Vacca said. “It was about a month later that we began to have a pattern.”
In late October, a student woke up just before 5 a.m. and saw someone bent over her laundry basket. According to the police report, they said “Excuse me?” and the man left shortly after.
Two nights later, after a night of merriment, “Kate” fell asleep on her couch while watching a scary movie with a friend. As she slowly woke up around 3:40 a.m. to find someone watching her sleep, she realized that something scary was happening in reality.
“You know when you’re really tired and something would tell you to wake up, but you’re trying to fight that and go back to sleep? That’s the stage I was in when I noticed there was someone kind of standing above me,” Kate said.
Kate initially thought the person was the friend she had been watching the movie with before realizing that she didn’t recognize the person.
“As I’m opening my eyes, I realized that this person was staring back at me,” Kate recalled.
Kate said that the stranger was wearing a hoodie and seemed to be in his mid-20s. He was not wearing a mask when he was in her room. When she asked who he was he said he knew her roommate, but he left soon afterwards.
“I got up, I locked the door,” Kate said. “I remember looking around our room just to see if anything was missing because even though I felt like I was being crazy and it probably wasn’t that dangerous of a situation, I had an off feeling. I noticed nothing was missing but that my laptop had been shut, which was strange to me, because my laptop was open and plugged into our HDMI cable because that was how we were watching the movie.”
Kate locked her doors and went back to sleep in a daze.
Less than two hours later, “Lauren” was reading Nicole Gelfert’s email about locking doors when she heard someone open the door to her common room and close it slowly.
“I knew one of my roommates was sleeping next to my room and the other one would slam the door—he wouldn’t close it slowly,” Lauren recalled. “I ran out there, opened the door but stayed right next to my door, so in case he approached me, I was just going to lock the door and lock myself in my dorm.”
When Lauren asked him who he was, the man claimed to be her roommate’s co-worker.
“I was like, ‘Okay, if you’re [my roommate’s] friend, I’ll wake him up, can you wait outside?’ But the thing is, I knew that he was not [my roommate’s] friend because he is really worried about COVID. He wouldn’t put any of his friends in our common area today. And I know not any kind of coworker would come at like 5:30 a.m.,” Lauren said.
“Angela” woke up around 4:30 a.m. to go to the restroom. When she woke up again around 8 a.m., her door was ajar.
“I woke up because like the light was coming in,” Angela said. “I was like, why is that? I saw my door was open and I called the cops right away.”
Another incident occurred near Angela’s dorm in the early evening a couple nights later while a student was in the bathroom.
“‘I was watching TV on my bed when I got up to use the restroom,’” the resident wrote in a statement included in the police report. “‘About a minute after I was in the restroom, I heard jiggling of the doorknob to my dorm. The door slammed shut and I heard rummaging through the plastic bags and closets in my dorm. I thought it was a potential roommate or maintenance, so I quickly finished, flushed the toilet, washed my hands, and came out, but the person was gone, so I emailed [Associate Dean of Student Affairs] Mark Stier.’”
The Campus Police Department is actively investigating and hundreds of door alarms have been ordered, but many students remain on edge.
At the Nov. 2 virtual town hall, Stier assured a crowd of students that resident advisors (RAs) as well as professional staff would be increasing patrols and checking if locks were shut. Dean of Students Randy Harrell said that these patrols have continued since then and that staff are continuing to find a handful of unlocked doors every night.
“While I wish that weren’t happening, there’s the flip side of that,” Harrell said, “And that is that there’s a level of trust among students that is really healthy and I hate to have [these intrusions] defeat that.”
Harrell ordered boxes of alarms to be delivered to his house because he did not want them to be stuck at the mailroom over a weekend. 240 total have been ordered and over half have been claimed.
Although Kate now always keeps her door locked and has a door alarm, she no longer feels safe walking places alone.
“I’m paranoid all the time now about my door being locked, both the automatic lock and the deadbolt and having the door alarm inserted,” Kate said. “Before, I’ve always felt super safe at New College. Pre-COVID, if it was PCP, I’ve had that experience of falling asleep in a stranger’s dorm that I went to with friends and waking up and there being different people there. But now that this has happened, I do not feel comfortable with strangers anymore.”
One of the students involved recounted an interaction with a housing staff member that she said made her feel uncomfortable the day after she installed her door alarm.
“I was going in and out of my room, because I kept forgetting stuff in the car, and it kept going off,” the student said. “There was an incident nearby, so there were a bunch of housing staff around at the time. You could hear [the alarm] going off and one person goes, ‘I really thought it would be louder. I’m surprised it’s not louder. Like, are you sure that’s loud enough for you?’
“I could not believe that a representative of housing—whose sole job is to try to make people feel more comfortable and more safe after all this is going on—would say something like that and make me feel unsafe after I installed something and the whole point of me installing it was to try to give me a sense of safety again. That’s not something that you should be saying to a victim who’s trying to get back the sense of control that they need,” the student emphasized.
When asked to comment on this incident, Stier said that he was unaware of the exchange but offered, “If the student wishes to meet with me or the Dean to discuss this situation we are both open to meeting with this student.”
Some of the incidents occurred due to an unlocked common room door, but two cases have occurred in a Pei residence hall where all of the doors are supposed to lock automatically.
“From time to time they might hang up,” Burr said. “They’re supposed to lock when they’re closed, but if they’re a little dirty or something, they might not latch first. You might have to give it a little shove or something.”
Burr also said that all of the master keys have been accounted for and that after review, no broken or non-functioning hardware has been found where the incidents took place.
A less well-known possibility is the usage of a sub-master key, which unlock specific subsections of campus. For example, housing staff and maintenance workers all carry sub-master keys to get into all the dorms. But Burr said that all maintenance workers are over the age of 40, and that all age descriptions of the suspect have been a man in his mid-20s.
How the suspect gained entry to multiple rooms in Pei remains unclear. Angela said that her lock seemed to be working properly and there were no visible signs of damage the next day. Her lock was changed for safety reasons after the incident.
“The subject has been described by multiple people as a white male, between mid-20s to 30s, thin build, anywhere between 5’ 8” to 6’ 1” or taller,” Vacca said. “Hair color was short, light brown to blonde, with some facial hair. No scars, marks or tattoos were noted, no speech affect, no unusual odor.”
It is unclear whether the subject is affiliated with New College or not.
The Campus Police Department is actively investigating the multiple incidents and is working with local law enforcement agencies. Two people of interest have been identified so far but results from photo line-ups have been mixed.
“We’re trying to follow every investigative lead and respond to every call,” Vacca said. “We’ve had some good leads. And it’s because people are working with us: the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office crime analysis unit and the Sarasota Airport [Police]. We have good partners. And our students have been prompt about giving us information.”
The students involved noted that they have been in active contact with investigating police officers and have been shown two different line-ups. Kate mentioned an uncomfortable interaction when police came to her room to show her a line-up.
“As soon as I circled a suspect that I wasn’t super confident about—but if you have a feeling that that might be the person you saw, they still want you to circle—so I circled someone and signed my name and filled out the form,” Kate said. “As soon as I had put the pen down, another cop who I didn’t even know was there just came in the door and was like, ‘That’s not the person I was hoping you’d circle, but okay.’”
Kate said that the officer proceeded to hand him his personal phone to show her the man’s Facebook page and asked her if that was the person who came into her room.
“I didn’t think he looked like the person, but just to have the rush of it was really overwhelming,” Kate said. “It’s a high-stress process already, so to have another officer who I didn’t know was there just automatically come in made me feel very caught off guard.”
In response to this, Vacca said, “We have guidelines in our policy that says that we do not want in any way to influence any witness in terms of their decision-making process or their perception, so we have to be careful not to provide any sort of verbal or nonverbal indication or feedback that what they’ve done is or is not the person.”
Vacca added that “we want our officers to behave professionally and properly” and said that she would follow up with the officers directly involved in this case.
Lauren observed that student-police relations have shifted from previous semesters when student trust in police was low and concerns about over-policing were high.
“Last semester, everybody was worrying about the police presence, but right now, it’s more like we know why they are here,” Lauren said.
While the perpetrator is still at large, no further incidents have occured for nearly two weeks.
“We would like to be able to solve it,” Vacca said. “But by the same token, if we’re able to do enough that spooks the person, makes them think that they might get caught, then that’s good, too. But what we don’t want is for any event like that to be repeated and to increase.”
This is the first in a two-part series about the recent intrusions on campus. Next week’s article will discuss long-term plans for security infrastructure improvements.