For Christian Prince ’93, Feb. 16, 1991 was like any other Saturday night at Yale.
He went to Mory’s with friends, then to a party hosted by the Aurelian Senior Society in Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall. When the party ended around 1 a.m., his friends were ready for pizza.
But Prince had lacrosse practice in the morning, so he called it a night and headed back to his apartment on Whitney Avenue.
When Rocky Mould ’93, his best friend, went to pick up Prince for practice in the morning, a tradition for the two teammates, Prince wasn’t home. He never made it back to his apartment the night before.
Instead, on the steps of St. Mary’s Church on Hillhouse Avenue, just a short walk from the house of University President Richard Levin and across from Silliman College, Prince had been shot — a single bullet through the heart, shortly after 1 a.m. He was pronounced dead at 2:05 a.m. on Feb. 17, 1991, 20 years ago today.
It is without question one of the greatest tragedies in Yale’s history.
The murder devastated the campus and opened a gaping wound in town-gown relations; Prince, an upstanding, service-minded student-athlete, was struck dead for no motive other than petty theft. It was the first time a student had been slain since 1974, when Gary Stein ’76 was shot and killed near campus in a similar robbery situation. Prince’s murder shocked the city and the nation, and dealt a blow to the reputations of both Yale and New Haven — applications to the University dropped significantly in the years immediately following the death.
But the Prince murder also marked a major shift in the way Yale interacts with the city. His death sped up a budding process of renewing town-gown relations and led to the security measures University community members take for granted today. Yale could no longer hide from the realities of a decaying city; any semblance of a barrier between Yale and New Haven vanished with one random, senseless act of violence.
THE NIGHT OF
Exactly what happened in the early morning hours of Feb. 17 remains unclear; the primary witness to the events later recanted his account, saying he had been coerced by police. According to his original testimony, the events occurred as follows. Shortly after 1 a.m., when Prince’s friends headed to pizza at Naples on Wall Street, he broke with the group and started back to his Whitney Avenue apartment.
At the same time, Randy Fleming and James Duncan Fleming (no relation), two teenagers from the Newhallville neighborhood, took off from a party in a white Nissan looking to “stick up a cracker,” according to testimony from Randy Fleming. One carried a revolver; the other, a .25 caliber semiautomatic pistol.
Eventually they found their target — Christian Prince, walking alone along Hillhouse. James Fleming, only 16, hopped out of the car and demanded Prince’s wallet. According to Randy Fleming, 17, Prince handed over the wallet, but James Fleming pistol-whipped him anyway, shouting, according to Randy, “I ought to shoot this cracker.”
So he did.
Minutes later, a graduate student passing by spotted Prince lying, arms spread, at the base of St. Mary’s Church. He was pronounced dead at 2:05 a.m. Police would later find Prince’s wallet across the street, complete with $46 and credit cards. His killer had dropped it during his hasty getaway.
Three months later, in May 1991, New Haven police arrested James Fleming and charged him with first-degree murder, felony murder, attempted robbery and conspiracy.
Much of prosecutor Michael Dearington’s case rested on Randy Fleming’s eyewitness account. But when he took the stand a year later, Randy Fleming recanted everything he’d said about the night, saying that police had pressured him into giving them false testimony. Nothing he told the police was true, he claimed.
The case fell apart with Randy Fleming’s testimony, and after two trials, James Fleming was acquitted of first-degree murder, felony murder, and attempted robbery. He received a nine-year sentence for conspiracy and was released from jail. Randy Fleming is currently serving an eight-year sentence for an unrelated robbery.
Christian Prince’s murder shocked the University. Then-President Benno Schmidt called the murder a “despicable, senseless crime.”
Over 1,000 people attended a funeral for Prince in Washington, D.C., where Ted Prince ’88, Christian’s brother, delivered a eulogy. A 6’2” history major from Chevy Chase, Md., the blond-haired, blue-eyed Christian Prince was a fourth-generation Yalie — his brother, sister and father are all Yale alumni.
“I can remember precisely where I was in Virginia when I heard this tragic news,” said University Secretary Linda Lorimer, then the president of Randolph-Macon Women’s College and a member of the Yale Corporation. “As a mother and a Yale trustee, you can’t think of anything worse to happen.”
Christian cared deeply about environmental issues, and seemed on track to become a public interest lawyer who may one day have sought political office, Mould said. (Green runs in the family — Christian’s sister works for the Environmental Defense Fund, his brother, for National Geographic.)
Mould still thinks of his buddy every February, he says.
“It’s just sad to think that one of our crew didn’t make it all the way through and isn’t here with us today,” he said.
By many standards, the late ’80s and early ’90s marked an absolute low point for town-gown relations. Crime rates reached their all-time high in this period as the city continued an economic decline that began in the 1960s, said Doug Rae, a professor at the School of Management who has written extensively on urbanism. At the time of Prince’s murder, Rae was working as Chief Administrative Officer for New Haven.
Neighborhoods right around campus grew riddled with crime as major economic engines failed, Rae said. Popeye’s on Whalley Avenue used to have bullet holes in its windows, Mould remembers; one night, when he and Prince were showing off fraternity houses on High Street to lacrosse recruits, they heard gunshots just down the street.
“The whole city scares me,” Dave Sussman ’92 told the News Feb. 17, 1991 in the first article about the murder.
There were two possible responses to the urban decline, Rae said — one option was to create a “hard perimeter,” a safe zone within which a University could operate, and the other was to engage the community directly to improve conditions. Prior to the Prince slaying, Rae said, Yale had stuck mostly with the “hard perimeter” approach.
“The tragic murder of Christian Prince called our community to both reflection and action,” said Michael Morand ’87 DIV ’93, the University’s former associate vice president for New Haven and state affairs.
Yale commissioned independent consulting groups to examine its security procedures and determine how best to keep its students and affiliates safe; one consulting firm, the Police Foundation, issued a comprehensive report that guided much of the reform of Yale’s security system, according to James Perrotti, chief of Yale Police from 1998 to July 2010.
Perrotti was commander of the YPD in 1991, and although the department began implementing several of the Police Foundation’s recommendations before his time, he oversaw the vast majority of the changes, he said.
After the Prince murder, the University added 21 Yale Police officers, and installed 400 blue phones across campus and $2.5 million in outdoor lighting. Yale Security enhanced its escort service for students walking home late at night, both in Yale shuttles and on foot. From 1991 to 2009, the crime rate in New Haven dropped 52.6 percent.
“[Prince’s murder] was the beginning of some pretty significant changes in the police department,” Perrotti said.
Perrotti said the most significant and effective of these changes was a reshuffling of responsibility. At the time of Prince’s murder, YPD officers had to do double duty — not only were they responsible for policing campus, they also had to deal with security issues, like lockouts. These issues, though, often went on the back burner until there was a cop free to handle it, which on a bad night could take hours, Perrotti said.
“If it was a busy night, a lot of those security things would either have to wait a long time or just never get done,” Perrotti remembers. “We really didn’t perform good security.”
To fix this, the University established Yale Security, now a separate entity from the YPD, and split responsibilities between the groups. This division was a major factor in boosting campus safety and made Yale a leader in campus security systems across the nation, Perrotti said. Thanks to these improvements, Perrotti said he thinks Yale students are much safer now than they were 20 years ago.
A RELATIONSHIP REBORN
But tighter security alone would not solve the problem. Yale could not just build better walls; it had to help build a better New Haven. The officers of the University knew that, and even before Christian Prince was murdered in 1991 they were examining ways in which they could build stronger partnerships with New Haven. After the Prince murder, improving this relationship seemed all the more urgent; as the leaders of the University in the early ’90s looked for policy changes, the Prince slaying remained fresh in their memory.
“What happened to Christian Prince is certainly on my mind and always will be,” University Secretary Sheila Wellington told the News in 1991.
It was also on the minds of the members of the Yale Corporation when, in 1993, they chose Richard Levin, then chair of the economics department, to become Yale’s next president. Lorimer, who in 1993 served as a trustee of the Corporation, said Levin’s commitment to strengthening relations with the city factored into the Corporation’s decision.
She, too, would return to the University that year, to serve as its vice president and secretary and to help Levin build a new relationship with the city.
“My decision to return to Yale as a member of the staff and leave the Yale Corporation was primarily prompted by my interest in building partnerships with the city of New Haven to ensure a very strong community for the university,” Lorimer said in an interview Tuesday.
Lorimer served as the first director of the Office of New Haven and State Affairs, founded in 1995 to serve as the University’s liaison to the city. In doing so, her goals were threefold: to strengthen economic development, neighborhoods, and community life. Under the leadership of Bruce Alexander ’65, the office established a Homebuyer program, which emerged out of discussions following the Prince murder, that provides a financial incentive to its employees to live in New Haven. In addition, Yale invested significant resources into the public school system that has recently culminated in programs like New Haven Promise. In 2010, New Haven had the lowest apartment vacancy rate in the nation, at 2.3 percent; that’s even lower than New York City’s, and a sign of economic progress, Morand said.
Alumni returning to New Haven for reunions frequently tell Lorimer how much the city has improved, she said. Indeed, Mould said the area directly around the University is like an “upscale mall” compared to what it used to be.
But work still remains; the city could face serious financial problems as pension obligations continue to rise, and the education system still requires major reforms before it can meet the community’s needs, Rae said. Accordingly, Alexander called Yale’s support of New Haven Public Schools the “next major advancement for our community.”
Twenty years after “one of the most horrible tragedies in Yale history,” as Lorimer called it, Yale is working in tandem with the city more than ever.
“It was an event which changed the course of Yale’s thinking about the city,” Rae said, “much for the better.”
Drew Henderson and Everett Rosenfeld contributed reporting.
Correction: February 21, 2011
An earlier version of this article misstated the class year of Gary Stein ’76.