True Crime at the UA

It's hard to believe who's stealing what on campus.

While underage drinking has gotten all the attention, the most recent crime figures from the University of Arizona campus show a disturbing trend: lots of theft.

Everything from bicycles to university-owned computers, books, projectors, lab equipment and even chemicals and fish have "walked away."

"Every now and then, we'll catch some kid who got hold of a key, and we've had some kids who discovered the university utility tunnels and figured out how to get into buildings," says Joel Valdez, senior vice president for business affairs. "No matter what rule you throw out, there are a bunch of kids who will figure out how to beat the system."

In 2002, 717 thefts were reported, with an additional 524 stolen bikes but only 55 arrests, according to the latest annual University of Arizona Police Department Campus Safety and Security Report. This year, that ratio isn't much better.

"Trends and spikes in 2003 crime on the campus do not seem to be any different than the previous year," says UAPD Sgt. Eugene V. Mejia. "Thefts seem to be pretty consistent; we are a target-rich environment for thieves."

Some $109,000 in missing UA property was actually recovered in 2002 alone. And that stuff went beyond stolen bikes, although bike theft is the No. 1 problem--up more than 50 percent since 1999.

"In fact, we're in the top five in the nation as far as bicycle commuting at a university," says Mejia. "And with that, you have a lot of product that is sought after by thieves and easily accessible."

Mejia says most arrested for bike thefts are not students, but rather people with a drug addiction problem they are trying to support. And some keep coming back--even after being banned by the courts.

"There's also a problem that sometimes the county attorney doesn't want to prosecute," says Valdez.

Mejia echoes, "Again, we're dealing with property crime, and they are not going to make space in the Pima County jail by releasing violent criminals to put a property criminal in. And that's where we have problems."

What the other thieves were going after in 2003 is truly bizarre:

· In October, UAPD responded to a dry ice bomb thrown from the rooftop of Yavapai Hall. Officers requested assistance from the Tucson Police Department Bomb Squad as well as the Tucson Fire Department to wash down the area. Yavapai Hall residents were evacuated for five hours. A search warrant was served on the residence hall, and investigators recovered liquid nitrogen and several thousand dollars worth of UA audiovisual equipment. Police had investigated a possible attempted theft of liquid nitrogen from the Gould-Simpson building two months earlier.

· A cardboard box containing a 2-pound rod of lithium--a highly reactive metal used in chemical research--was stolen from the ground floor of the Gould-Simpson Building in February. The missing box was part of a shipment of 10 containers and has not been recovered. Should someone open the package, exposure to water or even moisture on someone's skin could start a fire or burn anyone in contact with it.

· There were two break-ins in May at the Bio Research Building. A metal cabinet on the fourth floor was broken into, and a computer that controls freezers along the hallway was missing. In the second incident, the latch and hinge locks on two freezers were broken. The scary part was it was never determined whether anything, such as vials of microbial pathogens, was missing.

· A student in November reported being contacted by an individual selling magazine subscriptions on campus. The student subscribed to a magazine and paid $40 cash. When the student arrived home to check on the Web site of business representative, she was unable to verify the subscription or find the site.

· A former aquaculture specialist for the UA's Maricopa Agricultural Center was recently accused of taking more than $25,000 in fish--using University of Arizona trucks, personnel and equipment to deliver the fish to customers who paid him. The theft of fish took place between January 1998 and May 2002.

While private property theft--car stereos, wallets, bikes, laptops--is always a problem, the spike in university property theft is causing a radical change in the UA "anti-theft policy," which staff and faculty must adhere to. Now, even the smallest theft of university property needs to be reported.

"Sometimes, people just have sticky fingers," notes Valdez. "And you wonder why in heck you would throw away a whole career for a couple of thousand dollars, or even $500."

Those UA property thefts--such as stealing checks made out to the university or finding a way into the maze of utility tunnels--are usually planned. But Mejia says most private property thefts are crimes of opportunity because new students with laptops or cell phones are too trusting.

"They really feel safe, because we've provided them with that environment on campus," says Mejia. "So they feel they can just leave their personal property unattended and come back with nobody walking off with it."