The Murder at Mehling Hall

Even before University of Portland student Catherine Johnson was killed, campus officials knew
her dorm was unsafe.

On May 29, 2001, Catherine Johnson, a 21-year-old junior at the University of Portland, was found murdered in her dorm room.

Nearly a year later, on the eve of what should have been the music-education major's graduation, the case remains unsolved. Police and university officials have released few details, other than that Johnson died of "homicidal violence" and that there was no sign of a break-in at Mehling Hall, the dorm where she lived.

Despite a virtual information blackout, WW recently obtained police records that raise questions about the safety of Mehling Hall even before Johnson's death. Those questions are echoed by the longtime head of security at UP.

Two months before Johnson's murder, Mehling Hall was burglarized, according to police reports. Sometime between March 10 and March 20, during UP's spring break, someone gained entry to three students' rooms, stealing items including jewelry, textbooks and clothing.

The burglaries bore two significant parallels to Johnson's murder. The first is that, like the murder, they took place at a time when school was not in session, which suggests the perpetrator was familiar with UP's calendar.

Second and more significantly, in both instances there was no sign of a break-in. In fact, the police reports about the March burglaries state, "No sign of forced entry. Its possible that burglarys [sic] were done by someone with a University Master key for Mehling Hall."

When contacted by WW, Russell Johnson, Catherine's father, was stunned at the news that there had been a prior break-in at the dorm where his daughter was murdered. "I didn't get that information," he says. "[University of Portland] didn't tell me any of that."

On May 5, the University of Portland will mark both the end of a yearlong celebration of its centennial anniversary and the graduation of the Class of 2002. That date will also commemorate the conclusion of the Catholic university's wildly successful "Defining Moment" capital campaign, which has raised more than $100 million.

Since the Rev. David Tyson assumed UP's presidency in 1990, he has transformed the North Portland school from an underconfident, underfinanced institution into one that competes for the region's top Catholic students with universities such as Santa Clara and Gonzaga. "Tyson has got a tremendous vision for this place," says Matt Chapman '71, a local businessman and a longtime member of the board of regents, which oversees the university.

During Tyson's tenure, UP has been named one of U.S. News & World Report's Top 10 Western regional universities seven years in a row, and UP faculty members have been named state and national professors of the year.

In addition to such tangible signs of academic improvement and the remarkable success of one of the country's top soccer programs, the gleaming new buildings that dot the campus attest to the funds that have flowed into the university on Tyson's watch.

But rather than the many accomplishments of the Tyson era, the moment that may come to define the university far into the future came shortly before noon on May 29 of last year, when Johnson's body was discovered in Mehling Hall.

Neither police nor university officials have released details about the circumstances surrounding her death, but WW has obtained a copy of a May 30 memo from Deputy State Medical Examiner Nikolas Hartshorne that was inadvertently released to the Vancouver Columbian. The memo states in part, "The family has been notified that Johnson died from manual strangulation and that she was sexually assaulted (non-specific nature)."

Johnson's death came as a terrible blow to the UP community. "The murder shocked the university to its core," Chapman says.

Described by university staff and students as a lovely, self-effacing young woman who epitomized UP's ideals of faith and service, the fit, brown-eyed Johnson had spent countless hours on volunteer activities, including working with low-income children, mentoring young girls and teaching music.

At the time of her death, she had just begun a summer of working with the university's volunteer office and managing Mehling Hall, which is used to house conference and reunion attendees when classes are out of session. Classes had been over for nearly a month when she was killed, and Mehling was nearly empty.

From the start, the investigation into Johnson's murder has been shrouded in mystery. After The Columbian reported details of the medical examiner's findings, the next significant news on broke Aug. 17, when The Oregonian reported that police were taking DNA samples from university employees thought to have access to Mehling Hall.

Tyson was reportedly incensed by the story, which university officials say was leaked by a UP employee. In an email sent to all students and university employees Aug. 21, Tyson threatened to fire or expel "any person...determined by the University and/or law enforcement agencies to have jeopardized the conduct of the Kate Johnson murder investigation."

Coming nearly three months after the murder, Tyson's explanation that he was acting on the wishes of Johnson's family and in order not to compromise the investigation failed to convince many observers. "I was very angry at the email," says a UP professor, who requested anonymity. "It was a pretty clear-cut case of damage control."

A leading independent expert on campus crime agrees with that assessment. S. Daniel Carter of Security on Campus Inc., a Pennsylvania nonprofit watchdog group, says Tyson's email was an attempt to "strong-arm" the community. "It was one of the most outrageous things we saw all of last year," say Carter, whose company was founded by the parents of a Lehigh University student who was raped and murdered in a dorm known by campus officials to be unsafe. "Our read was that UP was trying to stop people from criticizing security on the campus."

Tyson's email was just the first example of the university's heavy-handed attempts to contain information about Johnson's murder. An even more embarrassing communications blunder occurred a couple of months later.

John Goldrick, vice-president of student services and Tyson's top lieutenant, has been the point man on the Johnson case.

The most powerful non-priest at the University, Goldrick, 61, came to UP from Notre Dame, where he was once Tyson's boss. Despite Goldrick's avuncular appearance, students and faculty say that one of his primary responsibilities has been to see that nobody says or does anything that could embarrass the university. "Goldrick would put a gag order on his mother not to talk about his birthday," says former UP political-science professor Jim Moore, who left the university last spring.

For months, Goldrick maintained that the only residents of Mehling Hall were Johnson and another female UP student who was also working on campus during the summer.

But in December, the Portland Tribune reported that in addition to the two women, a Holy Cross priest named David Adaikalam was living in the dorm when Johnson died, though police told the Trib that Adaikalam was not a suspect.

In a recent interview, Goldrick explained the omissions, telling WW that he was initially told the priest had moved out of the dorm prior to Johnson's death. "I thought he had gone the day before," Goldrick says. When he learned that Adaikalam had not departed earlier, Goldrick adds, he wanted to shield the priest from the media and protect him from the murderer.

Such explanations haven't satisfied many observers. "It was a stupid decision by the university, no matter what the reasoning was behind it," say Moore, the former UP professor.

The UP administration's attempts to keep a lid on information are an understandable, if awkward, response to Johnson's murder. Their accounts of what they knew about Mehling Hall and what they did to ensure safety there, however, are more perplexing.

As is the case at other dorms on the UP campus, Mehling Hall's exterior doors are unlocked during the day. A student monitor sits inside the dorm, and checks entering students' identification cards. Individual rooms are unlocked with metal keys. After midnight or when there is no monitor present, students enter the dorm by swiping their ID cards through an electronic reader outside the building.

When the ID cards pass through the reader, they leave a computer trail. After Johnson's murder, police reviewed all records of the use of such cards to see who had been inside Mehling prior to her death.

But that avenue of inquiry
doesn't seem to have yielded results. John Rhodes, the Portland Police Bureau detective heading the investigation, concedes that there are currently no suspects in the case, nor has anyone come forward with significant clues. "It's a real whodunit," Rhodes says.

Since the identification cards were apparently a dead end, that leaves a couple of other possibilities: The murderer was let in the building; he just happened to find both exterior and interior doors open; he picked the locks; or he had a master key, which would allow him to open all exterior and interior doors. Each campus building has a master key, though it's not clear how many copies exist.

The question of whether Catherine Johnson's murderer had a master key is even more relevant given the discovery that the same dorm had been burgled two months earlier.

As the result of a public-records request, WW obtained three police reports filed in March of 2001, detailing burglaries of three separate dorm rooms at Mehling Hall. Because the burglaries took place during spring break and were not discovered until students returned, it's unclear whether the perpetrator entered the building just once or on three separate occasions.

In part because there was no sign of forced entry, former UP Director of Public Safety John Garner believes that a master key may have been used. A onetime police officer, Garner ran UP's security operation for 22 years before taking a similar job at Linfield College last March. (Even after taking the Linfield job, Garner continued to oversee UP's security until the end of UP's fiscal year, which came two days after Johnson's death.)

The other reason Garner says a master key may have been used is that, for years, the university has not had adequate control of keys, particularly master keys. He says there is no way to know how many such keys exist and, given the ease of copying them, he couldn't even hazard a guess.

Garner says he voiced concerns about key security to his superiors repeatedly and adds that when a team from Notre Dame came to review UP's security procedures in the late '90s, he told them one of his primary concerns was control of keys.

The University of Portland's responses to these disclosures have been puzzling. Two weeks ago, WW asked Goldrick, in a taped interview, whether there were any security concerns at Mehling Hall prior to Johnson's murder, and whether there were any indications that Mehling was not a good place for Catherine Johnson to be.

To both those questions, Goldrick responded, "No."

In a subsequent interview conducted via email with UP spokespersons John Furey and Kathleen Campbell, WW asked directly if there were any break-ins into Mehling Hall prior to Johnson's murder. The two did not answer the question. They did, however, claim that the university changed Mehling's exterior locks following spring break "after a master key was discovered lost."

When asked for the work orders to show that the locks had, indeed, been replaced, Furey and Campbell declined to provide that information.

Garner, who was UP's acting head of security when Johnson was killed, says some re-keying was done, but he is "very skeptical" that all the exterior locks were changed prior to the murder. "I have some serious doubts about what was done," Garner says. "And if they did re-key, who got the keys?"

Finally, on April 29, WW asked UP officials in a telephone interview why they hadn't acknowledged the March burglaries earlier. Said Campbell, "We felt that the concerns had been addressed by the key changes."

Portland Police Det. Rhodes says he was aware of the March burglaries at Mehling Hall but that he has not established a connection to Johnson's death. The detective added that he has pursued the key angle and is comfortable that UP has "a key system with strict controls." At the same time, however, it's worth noting that the police have not sought to interview Garner, who, as head of security, would seem to be a likely source of information.

The father of the victim, Russell Johnson, says that, at a minimum, he should have been notified of both the prior burglaries and the fact that a master key may have been involved. "Nobody ever mentioned lost keys" or any prior break-ins at Mehling Hall, Johnson says. From the beginning, he says, "the key situation was our biggest question. We got no information."

For parents and prospective college students across the country, campus safety is a crucial concern, particularly at those institutions that, like UP, are in urban settings. "It's a top-five issue, particularly to parents, when they're selecting a college," says Carter, the campus safety watchdog.

Carter adds that poor key control plagues many college campuses. "We frequently issue letters to schools demanding that they re-key their dorms," he says. (Although Carter has followed the UP case closely, his organization has not contacted UP officials.)

Although UP is close to some low-income neighborhoods, there has been little serious crime reported on campus in recent years. Based on both federal data and the number of police reports generated, UP experienced less crime than Reed College during the past three years (1998 through 2000) and not dramatically more than Lewis and Clark.

Despite UP's relative safety, campus officials understandably acted decisively after Johnson's murder, beefing up patrols by the school's security, contracting with a private security company, tightening up the use of electronic ID cards and ordering viewing holes placed in dormitory doors.

Garner says those steps may be good for public relations, but that they are too little and too late. "It's like locking the barn door after the horse is already gone," he says.


During his 12 years at the University of Portland, the Rev. David Tyson has relentlessly pursued two aims: academic improvement and fundraising.

Some students and faculty members say that the emphasis on bringing in dollars has made the Tyson administration hypersensitive to controversy. At the same time, his push to bring higher-caliber students to UP has attracted students who are more willing to question authority.

On March 6 and 7, for instance, a group of UP students who call themselves STAR (Students Toward Awareness and Responsibility) handed out condoms in front of Franz Hall, one of the five new buildings erected during the Tyson era.

Two seniors who were involved, Kwai Washburn and Jefferson Azevedo, say that STAR obtained the condoms and informational pamphlets from the state health department in order to raise consciousness about sexually transmitted diseases.

For their sins, STAR fell afoul of the campus judicial coordinator for "conduct which deliberately disrupts or interferes with the rights and privileges of other members of the university community."

Azevedo and Washburn were ordered to write five-page papers discussing "how your choice to distribute condoms impacted the university community."

UP's student newspaper, The Beacon, splashed the controversy on its front page. It was just the latest opportunity for the paper to explore what seems to be a growing conflict between the students and Tyson's administration.

In 2000, the UP men's rugby club was banished after seemingly minor misbehavior, and last year a gay and lesbian student organization called FUEL publicly protested institutional hostility toward gay students; STAR also raised a ruckus over the university's large ROTC program (see "Christian Soldiers," WW, May 2, 2001). Editors at The Beacon, who have complained in print about being censored and decried the refusal of university officials to speak on the record, recently were chastised for running a story about Happy Hours.

Vice President for Student Services John Goldrick denies that conflict is on the rise. "I think these issues are present on every campus," Goldrick says, "and I think they were always here."

But Matt Chapman, a UP regent who attended the university at the height of the Vietnam War, says there were no battles over social issues when he was an undergraduate. "None at all," he recalls.

Without question, there remain many students at UP who are comfortable with an authoritarian administrative approach--as evidenced by letters to The Beacon protesting the condom stunt--but for students such as Azevedo and Washburn, the university's approach to dissent is disillusioning. "We're taught to think critically and ask questions, but then when we do, we get in trouble for it," Azevedo says. --NJ

The University of Portland is located at 5000 N Willamette Blvd.

About 48 percent of the University of Portland's 2,500 undergraduates are Catholic, which is up 3.4 percentage points from 10 years ago.

The University of Notre Dame and the University of Portland are run by priests from the Congregation of the Holy Cross, a Catholic order headquartered in South Bend, Ind.

Last year, incoming freshmen at UP had average combined SAT scores of 1140.

In 1981 there was a murder-suicide on UP's campus while classes were in session. A member of the custodial staff shot a computer programmer as he sat in his office, then took his own life.

In 1967, the Holy Cross Order sold UP--which was having financial difficulties--to the Board of Regents for $1.

UP regents include Al Corrado, a founder of Columbia Mutual Funds, and John Emrick, the CEO of Norm Thompson. Bob Pamplin Jr., who gave the University $10.8 million in 1999, is a regent emeritus;


publisher Fred Stickel is a Life Regent.

Tyson's predecessor, the Rev. Thomas Oddo, was killed in a freak accident in 1989 when a trailer came loose from a truck and entered his lane. Tyson came to UP from Notre Dame, where he had been one of three finalists for the president's job.