As most students at Eastern Michigan University were heading home for the holidays in December, the school put out a news release announcing that student Laura Dickinson had passed away unexpectedly in her dorm room.
There was no foul play, the school said. Staff members assured students there was no reason to worry about safety. The campus fell into mourning, with candlelight vigils for Dickinson, 22, a member of the school’s crew team.
For 10 weeks, neither her family nor fellow students knew state and campus police were investigating several suspects.
On Feb. 23, Orange Amir Taylor III, 20, a fellow Eastern Michigan student, was arrested. Only then did the university acknowledge the truth: Dickinson had been raped and killed. Her killer took her keys and locked the dorm-room door when he left.
The school “lied to us,” said Laura’s father, Bob Dickinson. “They let us bury her thinking that a healthy 22-year-old girl died by some freak accident.”
Protecting an image?
School officials will not say why they remained silent. But parents and the community think administrators endangered students in an effort to protect the university’s image.
An independent investigation initiated by the school’s board of regents agrees. In a report released this month, investigators with a Detroit law firm detailed how school officials violated the Jeanne Clery Act, a federal law that requires colleges and universities to disclose information about campus crimes and warn students of threats to their safety.
The report and court documents show that Eastern Michigan campus police either suspected or believed all along that the death was a homicide.
James Vick, vice president of student affairs who oversees the school’s housing and campus-police departments, told the Dickinson family no foul play was suspected when relaying news of Laura’s death.
The Department of Education is looking into whether the school violated the 1990 Jeanne Clery Act. Although the department has conducted 70 similar inquiries since October 2003, only three institutions have been fined under the law.
The night Laura Dickinson died, she attended a team Christmas party where teammates swapped “Secret Santa” gifts. It was Dec. 12—a Tuesday—and finals week.
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, a custodian, answering a complaint from one of Dickinson’s Hill Hall neighbors, opened the door to room 518 and found her body.
As the school made public statements about Dickinson’s death, school police were interviewing four men as suspects, including Taylor, who told campus police he previously had roamed through dorms to steal electronics.
Dr. Bader Cassin, the Washtenaw County medical examiner who conducted Dickinson’s autopsy, issued his final report: She likely died of asphyxiation.
Taylor was charged with open murder, larceny, home invasion and two counts of sexual criminal conduct. He has pleaded not guilty and is being held in Washtenaw County Jail without bail. He faces trial Oct. 15.
[Editor’s Note: AR News first covered this story on March 13. See the story and comments here.]
Laura Dickinson and Orange Amir Taylor III
The Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act takes its name from Jeanne Clery, 19, who in 1986 was raped and slain in her residence-hall room at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.
The law was enacted by Congress in 1990 and amended in 1992, 1998 and 2000.
The law requires institutions of higher learning to disclose campus security information, including crime statistics for the campus and surrounding areas. It also mandates that universities publicize crimes on campus and warn students about threats to their safety.
Because the law is tied to participation in federal student-financial-aid programs, it applies to most institutions of higher education, public and private. It is enforced by the U.S. Department of Education.
Schools that fail to comply with the law can be fined by the Department of Education for up to $27,500 per violation, or the department can suspend the school from participating in federal student-aid programs.