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Second robbery in two weeks prompts safety awareness for ETSU staff, students

Max Hrenda • Apr 8, 2014 at 10:39 PM

Although a recent report from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation showed that crime rates at local colleges declined in 2013, East Tennessee State University faculty, staff, and students are seeing that 2014 is a brand new year.

On Tuesday morning, two students told campus authorities they were robbed at gunpoint near the gazebo between Davis Apartments and Centennial Hall.

The report came less than two weeks after two other students told police they had been robbed at gunpoint while walking in the area of Wilson and Lamb halls. Though the two incidents occurred within 10 days of each other, ETSU spokesman Joe Smith said there was no indication they are related.

“We don’t have any information right now that suggests the incidents are connected,” Smith said. “The investigations remain ongoing, both (Tuesday’s) and the investigation from the one that occurred two weeks ago.”

On March 26, Matthew Christopher Sigmon, 20, and Jessee Chandler Capps, 19, told police that, at around 1 a.m., they were walking through campus near Wilson and Lamb halls when a man wielding a gun told them to stop, empty their pockets, and walk away. Sigmon and Capps described the alleged robber as a black man, standing approximately 5-feet-9-inches tall, and weighing anywhere from 125 to 150 pounds.

On Tuesday, campus police were called to the emergency telephone in front of Governor’s Hall by James Q. Wolfe, 18, and Caylan S. Roberts, 18, who told police they were robbed at gunpoint at around midnight near the gazebo. According to the incident report, Wolfe and Roberts were walking near the gazebo and noticed two men sitting at one of the picnic tables. The report said one of the men asked Wolfe for $5 to buy food, and then, after Wolfe removed his wallet, said, “Cock it” to the other man. At that point, police said, the two men drew handguns, forced Wolfe to sit down, and searched through his backpack.

Police said the men then told Wolfe to beckon Roberts and, after she arrived, they told her to empty her pockets and searched through her backpack, as well. Wolfe told police the men stole his wallet and $60 in cash, while Roberts said they took her Smartphone and $12 in cash.

Wolfe and Roberts described one of the men as black, standing between 6 feet and 6-feet-2-inches, weighing 170 to 190 pounds, between 19 and 24 years old, and wielding a silver revolver. The other man was described as black, standing somewhere between 6-feet-4-inches and 6-feet-5-inches tall, weighing between 220 and 240 pounds, also between 19 and 24 years old, and armed with a black, semi-automatic handgun.

Tuesday’s alleged robbery came just days after the TBI released a report showing that, in 2013, ETSU’s crime rate had dropped to its lowest point in five years, with 15.8 crimes per 1,000 campus population. While the two robbery investigations are conducted, the school is addressing security concerns across campus to limit any potential future deviations.

“In light of what’s happening, we are increasing our security presence during the late-night/overnight hours, effective immediately, for the remainder of the semester,” Smith said. “Some of that will be foot patrol, and more patrols done on campus.”

In addition to increases in security, however, Smith said students, faculty and staff should exercise all due caution when traveling through campus.

“We’re encouraging everyone just to remain vigilant, report any suspicious activity, ... be aware of their surroundings at all times ... and just to take safety precautions,” he said.

While the alleged robberies appear to have thrust security concerns into the spotlight, according to Bonnie Burchett, ETSU’s director of housing and residence life, safety and security are topics that are addressed often by her staff.

“We try to educate our students all the time,” Burchett said. “Of course, everyone is very concerned and on heightened alert. We want our students to always be (on alert), regardless of anything.”

Whether through ETSU’s advisement, or by their own judgment, some students say they have begun to think twice about venturing out onto campus after dark. Freshman Adam Church, who lives near the area where Tuesday’s alleged robbery occurred, said that, for safety reasons, he tries to avoid being outside when the sun goes down.

“I try not to go out too late after dark,” Church said. “That’s best for anywhere, not just here.”

Church added this practice was not established in response to recent events, but that the robbery reports “definitely” reaffirmed it.

While Church lives on campus, even some commuter students are thinking twice before staying on campus after dark. Sophomore Elizabeth Martinez lives off-campus, and said the distance between certain buildings and the school’s commuter parking lots has influenced the time she spends on campus.

“It kind of freaks me out,” Martinez said. “I go straight to the library after class, and my car is always far away. I have to walk far at night, so I don’t really stay as late.”

For those instances when she is on campus after dark, however, Martinez said she always leaves campus with a group of friends.

Though other students, like Church and Martinez, exercise caution, some of them, like junior Ashley Gensheimer, who lives in Davis Apartments, were still surprised and scared by reports of Tuesday’s alleged robbery.

“I’m a pretty careful person,” Gensheimer said. “(But) I didn’t expect that kind of thing to happen, especially on this side of campus where it’s so open. It scared me.”

When sophomore Olivia DeAngelo heard the news, while she was in her dorm room in Centennial Hall, she said she felt uneasy with the close proximity of the incident.

“It was kind of scary at first,” DeAngelo said. “But I knew I was safe inside my dorm room. There’s no way anyone could have gotten in without access to the building.”

DeAngelo added that she still feels safe on campus, even though she still goes outside after dark.

“The latest I ever stay is if I’m in the library,” she said. “But then I normally make sure I have someone with me to walk back to my room. Other than that, I feel pretty safe and secure on campus.”

Freshman Courtney Heard, who lives in Davis Apartments, said he, too, felt secure on campus, but was surprised at the lack of police presence during the robbery.

“Where I’m from (Chattanooga), there are police everywhere,” Heard said. “I thought the police should be patrolling (the area) late at night, at least.”

Other students think that students should not necessarily have to rely on police for protection. Junior Chase McCrory, who lives in the Campus Ridge apartment complex on Seminole Drive, said he would feel safer if he was allowed to carry a gun while attending school.

“Personally, I would feel better if you could have concealed carry on campus,” McCrory said. “I understand some people wouldn’t. But I really do think that would deter (crime). People who are going to break the law have the firearms, anyway.”

While that decision would ultimately lie with the state Legislature, students or parties interested in learning about ETSU’s safety measures can do so by visiting etsu.edu/safety online.

Follow Max Hrenda on Twitter @MaxLHrenda.

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