Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Western Carolina University Coverup

Recapping the facts as reported in the Asheville Citizen-Times (here, on Monday, and here, on Tuesday, and here, today):

1. Seven unidentified "students" at Western Carolina University, on a camping trip last weekend, discovered a dead bear cub that had either been shot in the head (because there was a lot of blood), as first reported, or hit by a car, as subsequent evidence suggests. (Your assumption, probably, given the subject matter, is that "students" means in this case male students, but not so fast there, Sparky. The university's precision in always subsequently saying "students" in official statements strongly suggests that at least one female was involved)

2. The seven frontierspersons took the dead bear cub, first to an off-campus party (where we're willing to take an oath on the phonebook that no alcohol was consumed) and then to the grand entrance to the campus, the roundabout in front of the Admin Bldg where a statue of the college mascot stands. They dumped the cub, partially dressed in two Obama campaign signs.

3. WCU maintenance workers discovered the decorated cub at approximately 7:30 a.m. Monday morning.

4. First word of the incident, with quotes from WCU police, hit the Citizen-Times website by 4:30 p.m. Monday afternoon. It's gone wider since then. By Tuesday, the police chief was referring inquiries to the University press office, and there was a clear and emerging difference of opinion between the campus police chief and the university's chancellor, who took over as teller of the "official" version of events.

5. The Dead Cub Story ... Version 1, The police chief's investigation:
a. the cub looked as though it had been shot in the head, "the best we can tell"

b. two Obama for President yard signs had been stapled together and "draped" over the cub's head; one of the signs had writing on duct tape attached, requesting that no one steal it

c. N.C. Wildlife Resources officials were contacted to remove the body and help in the investigation (since, although bear season has commenced in NC, it is illegal to kill bear cubs weighing less than 50 pounds and it's illegal to even possess a bear carcass without a hunting license)

d. campus police rather quickly identified the seven students; one or more of them gave statements that have filtered into the press:

I. they say they found the bear dead with a gunshot wound in the head while looking for firewood Saturday night during a camping trip

II. they say they put the bear in the back of a pickup truck

III. they say they took the bear with them to an off-campus party Sunday night

IV. they say that at the off-campus party the plan got hatched to dump the bear on campus

V. they say that en route to make the dump (later than 2 a.m. Monday morning), they took "random" political signs "in an effort to cover the head wound and prevent blood from spilling into the bed of the truck"

e. How the signs came to be stapled together to make a cap over the cub's head ... if the students answered that question, their answer is unknown to us

f. If their use for the Obama signs was purely to keep bear-blood off the truckbed, why would they allow the bear to lie on that truckbed for 24 hours, and display it at an off-campus soiree? Again, if the students answered that question, their answer is unrecorded

h. "the police chief offered no opinion on why the students would be concerned about blood in the back of the truck after the bear had been there for 24 hours"

i. on Monday, the police chief clearly indicated to the Citizen-Times reporter that the dumping was obviously political in nature. By Tuesday the police chief was ducking the press, although...

j. the police chief and the state wildlife officials plan to take the matter to the local District Attorney to see if criminal charges weren't warranted

6. The Dead Cub Story, Version Two, the WCU Chancellor's Tale:
First Draft: it was all a prank, heh. Not only a prank. A stoopid prank, and we're so ... relieved that it's just a stoopid prank without any political content whatsoever. The Obama signs ... pure "happenstance." "This is not politically motivated." No charges are being filed. Chancellor John W. Bardo scolded those who might make assumptions: "We should not jump to conclusions without first having all the facts."

Second Draft: We take this "act" verrrrry seriously. "It was wrong," regardless of motivation, which we do not know and probably never will know, because we decided yesterday that there was NO political content in the act, and we're not changing our position on that, and we're not even all that curious about why they did it. Motivation does not matter. And oh yeah, we were wrong when we said yesterday that the students put the bear cub in their truck right away. They didn't load the bear until after they returned home from their camping trip. Then they went back "to the woods" Sunday and refound the bear. The university is now "looking" into whether the students violated conduct rules.

7. Late-emerging factoid: one of the seven Frontier Scouts was evidently African-American. Slips out in the next to last paragraph of today's C-T article. Possibly explains a good deal about the university's total fumbling of this ball. Also suggests that there are other versions of The Dead Cub Story yet to be heard.

So much of this doesn't pass the smell test, starting with those wholly "random" Obama signs. Because we happen to know that Obama signs in Jackson County, N.C., are about as rare as they are in Watauga County, where McCain signs probably out-number Obama signs at least 3-1, and local political candidates' signs out-number both 10-1. If they needed something quick to protect their truckbed, it seems improbable in the extreme that not one but TWO Obama signs would be the first things to come to hand.

The discrepancies in how and where the cub was found also invite questions: "in the woods" would seem to go with shot in the head, which is what everyone believed at first, including apparently the students, but if the cub's head was crushed because it was hit by a vehicle, then "roadside" rather than "woods" would be indicated. Who goes back "into the woods" at night and finds a left-behind carcass?

They were drunk when they hatched the prank, which was a stupid prank. But when I was in college and did stupid pranks, like steal a "left-over" Christmas tree at approximately 2 a.m. on December 10, 1963, and take it to our dorm and decorate it in the spirit of the season, the college administration was not in the least interested in our worship of the Christ child but in our making restitution to the Christmas tree dealer.

Cover-ups make everything worse. Makes people wonder who these "students" were and who their parents are, and who might have lots of power and influence, and how many were ring-leaders and how many were followers.

It was a drunk and stupid prank. So what would constitute "restitution," or what would be appropriate punishment for theft of property and littering a carcass of a protected animal? We wouldn't recommend water-boarding, or even necessarily a dollar fine, but owning up and an apology might be called for. Huh?

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