This is just a drill

Volunteers walked through mud, weeds and melting snow, searching for her body.

by John Hoff

When I talk to people about the need for better security on campus, I always find myself bringing up the University of North Dakota-Grand Forks and the murder of Dru Sjodin. I attended UND when Sjodin was abducted and, months later, found sexually assaulted and murdered.

A small, closely knit campus is like a quilt, with every person an irreplaceable part of the whole. If a patch representing one person is brutally ripped from the quilt, the entire fabric of the campus community is altered. The eye and heart is drawn, again and again, to the missing piece even if the vast majority of the quilt remains.

So it was with Dru Sjodin. Almost everybody who was on the UND campus during that time has a personal anecdote from the long, dark, awful era that stretched from Sjodin’s abduction, to the arrest of a suspect, to discovery of Sjodin’s body, then the trial of the man who murdered her, his conviction, death penalty, and now the current phase of hopeless, drawn out appeals to dodge execution.

I first heard about the abduction during a meeting of the UND Student Senate while waiting to speak during the public comment period.

A friend of Sjodin went to the podium and explained about her alarming disappearance. He was trying to speak calmly, but it was easy to see he was frantic inside. He had a handful of flyers. His hand shook. His voice quavered. It was important everybody should know about the situation and post flyers, he said, please. Please.

As days wore on chilling details were aired in the media, but no suspect had been arrested. The mood of the UND campus community hovered just slightly below raw fear. It seemed the person who did this might be anybody or (more precisely) any grown male.

I remember young men on the small campus saying how terrible it was, and then mentioning all-too-casually how they were in a bar at the time with four, possibly six friends which they could certainly name. I myself managed to confirm I had been sending an e-mail around the moment of the abduction. Who on earth did it? We were going crazy to know the truth.

The arrest of a convicted sexual sociopath was a blow to the community. Hope died.

I was in the court room during the arraignment of the suspect, which took place even before the discovery of Sjodin’s body. Due to where I was standing in the corner, Alfonso Rodriguez looked me directly in the face as staff from the jail brought him through the door. In that moment, I recognized him. I had once seen him in the Columbia Mall, sitting on a bench. He had frowned, weirdly, at my little son. That’s how he was burned into my memory.

When winter gave way to spring, volunteers walked through mud, weeds and melting snow, searching. The discovery of Sjodin’s body by members of the Polk County Sheriff’s Department was phrased as delicately as possible, under the circumstances.

“Dru is home.”

In Grand Forks, the sense of “it can’t happen here” was utterly shattered.

So it is I find myself talking to people like Graham Arntzen and Matt Henry, the president and vice president of the Public Affairs Students Association, about inadequate security at the Humphrey Institute and, more generally, on campus.

At “the Hump” we study the art and science of policy making, including the concept of a “window of opportunity.” Unfortunately, in order for priorities to change, sometimes horrible things need to happen. Bridges fall down, and state budgets shift dramatically.

Why can’t we simply accept “it can happen here” and act accordingly, without the need for disaster to strike first?

I propose the concept of a “simulated window of opportunity.” Think of it like a fire drill, only more cerebral.

Are you ready? Here comes the drill.

At 2 a.m. this morning, about the time the online edition of this publication was hitting the Internet, the body of a male in his 20s was discovered in a hallway of the Humphrey Institute, lying in a pool of blood directly in front of the door of the Jernberg Lounge. The male, 5-foot-10-inches, (whose race has not been released by the authorities) had numerous defensive wounds on his hands, apparently from fending off a knife attack.

His identity is unknown. His wallet was missing and his face was severely battered to the point DNA or fingerprints might be needed. Near the male was a woman’s purse, its contents scattered, belonging to an unknown female, apparently a student.

A woman’s black high-heeled shoe was found some distance away, as well as two broken fingernails. Authorities suspect the dead male attempted to fend off the abduction of a female student. No other details are being released at this time.

Today you should be like Big Bird from Sesame Street, and play this “imagination game.” Today is a (simulated) somber day. A (pretend) murder has been committed, and one (imaginary) member of our campus community has apparently been abducted.

In the short term, we might all think in terms of our individual personal security, reflected in a variety of choices from secure locks to handy cell phones to big commitments like self-defense training. After all, there is a (fictional) psychopath running loose, or possibly more than one. You might want to call your parents to assure them you are fine. You know how parents worry.

But in the long term, systemic changes are needed. Optimum security camera placement would be a compromise between cost, mission and privacy considerations. My suggestion is to keep track, at the very least, of who the heck is entering and leaving campus buildings, walking off with laptops.

The majority of work done by a security camera (or even a security guard) is deterrence. Catching somebody in the act or recording evidence is often a secondary benefit.

This campus has a lot of great security measures. But if numerous bikes can be grabbed right off racks without so much as a live witness, what is to stop criminals from killing or abducting students?

John Hoff welcomes comments at [email protected].