Just four weeks into his Yale College career, a Branford freshman returned to his suite early last week to find his bedroom ransacked and death threats scrawled on the walls. Rumors swirled. For freshmen living in Vanderbilt Hall, it was an unpleasant beginning to their Yale careers.
And the response from the University did not help.
A week after the incident was first reported, most University administrators’ lips remain sealed and police officers continue to describe it simply as “criminal mischief” and have declined to elaborate further, citing the need to preserve the integrity of their investigation.
“Nobody really knows what’s going on,” said Kathryn Olivarius ’11, who lives in the student’s entryway in the Old Campus dorm.
In the first official acknowledgement that something at all had happened in Vanderbilt, Branford Master Steven Smith e-mailed his college’s freshmen last week to inform them of “several disturbing incidents of vandalism, anonymous messages and harassment” and urged students to take extra security precautions.
That e-mail, students said, may have created anxiety and ignited the rumor mill more than anything else. Meanwhile, there were tell-tale signs that something was amiss in Vanderbilt — but no one would say exactly what that was.
A police officer stood sentry outside of the dormitory at all hours. The new dean of Branford, Daniel Tauss, included a 600-word invocation in his weekly e-mail to the college urging students to be “a force for good,” a seeming attempt to turn the death threat scare into a teachable moment. And the authorities told students in Entryway B — where the victim lived — that they were forbidden from speaking to the News, or any other media outlet.
Tom Conroy, a University spokesman, has repeatedly refused to speak about the incident, including twice on Tuesday. Yale Police Department Chief James Perrotti would only say that an investigation was underway.
From the administration, there was silence. From freshmen on Old Campus, there were rumors. Many of them. For the 1,322 freshmen in their first month at Yale the episode seemed to cast a bizarre shadow over the start of the year.
“They sent us that e-mail to be careful, lock your doors, but that’s the only contact they’ve had with us,” said Ian Snow ’11, who lives in Vanderbilt. “Everything I know about it has been based on rumor,” he added. “It’s a sensitive subject so I guess I understand, but at the same time I’m curious because it’s 40 feet away from where I live, so it’s a big deal.”
For the police, though, the silence has been necessary, Sgt. Steven Woznyk, the YPD spokesman, said. Until their inquiry is complete, the YPD cannot release any details lest their investigation be compromised, he said. And a thorough investigation takes time, he added.
“We want to make sure this is a fair investigation, so you have to talk to a lot of people and do a lot of witness interviews,” Woznyk said in an interview on Tuesday. “For an active investigation, I can’t just spill out details,” he said.
Not surprisingly, though, speculation has continued to abound — about the scene of the crime, about the supposed suspect, about the motive. Until the administration or the authorities provide information, some students said, there seems no end in sight for the chatter.
“While I understand the need for some secrecy, I feel it’s irresponsible for them to not address the rumors that are going around,” Dan Stone ’11, another Vanderbilt resident, said.
At the same time, many students said they understood the need for the police to maintain their silence. Derrick Carr ’11 said it was understandable that students want more information on what had happened, but that he did not fault the police for not releasing specifics. “I think that would’ve caused a mass scare,” he said.
Anthony LeCounte ’11 agreed. The authorities, he said, deserve praise for “keeping it from getting out of proportion.” Others, too, took comfort in the added security outside of Vanderbilt.
“I think the administration handled it very well,” Vanderbilt resident Chris Chen ’11 said. “There’s always been a security guard outside watching, and it hasn’t ruined my impression of Yale.”
Still, the rumors have not let up. On Tuesday, a reporter roamed Old Campus asking students what they knew of the incident; their responses varied widely. One suggested it was the result of who was tapped for one a cappella group versus another. Others have speculated that it was because the victim landed roles in two prominent campus theatrical productions. Another thought it was random. Others were just confused.
The University, meanwhile, declined to comment.
Nicolas Niarchos contributed reporting.