Faculty

Former U. of Idaho Professor Suspected of Killing His Student Had Been Accused of Harassment

October 27, 2011

A former psychology professor at the University of Idaho who is suspected of gunning down a female graduate student and then taking his own life last August was a highly regarded teacher and scholar but suffered from mental illness and faced previous allegations of sexual harassment, according to detailed documents the university provided on Thursday.

Ernesto A. Bustamante, who was an assistant professor at the university, is accused of shooting Kathryn (Katy) Benoit nearly a dozen times in the neck and chest outside her apartment before driving to a hotel near the university and shooting himself. Ms. Benoit had filed a sexual-harassment complaint with the university last June in which she said that she and Mr. Bustamante had a sexual relationship while she was a student of his. Ms. Benoit said Mr. Bustamante claimed to have five different personalities, owned several guns, and had held a loaded one to her head and threatened her three times before they broke up last May.

According to documents the university released, Mr. Bustamante first told administrators that he and Ms. Benoit had a "close friendship," but he did not say it involved sex, and he said he ended their friendship after Ms. Benoit, who he said used marijuana and prescription medication, had stolen pills from him. In a follow-up interview with administrators, however, the university said Mr. Bustamante acknowledged that he had had sexual relationships with Ms. Benoit and other students.

The documents were among thousands the university released Thursday that constituted Mr. Bustamante's personnel file. Mr. Bustamante, a 31-year-old from Venezuela, began working as an assistant professor at Idaho in 2007. Ms. Benoit, who was 22, earned her bachelor's degree from Idaho and then enrolled as a graduate student in psychology in the fall of 2010.

The university made the information available after taking the unusual step last month of arguing before a district-court judge that Idaho Public Records Law, which bars public agencies from releasing personnel records without an employee's consent, should not apply after an employee's death. The judge agreed and said the university could release Mr. Bustamante's personnel file as well as all e-mail messages on his university computer.

Review of University's Relationship Policy

At a news conference on Wednesday, the university's president, M. Duane Nellis, announced that he had appointed an independent review panel to look at how the university handled Ms. Benoit's complaint and said he had also asked the university's Faculty Senate to strengthen a university policy that governs "consensual relationships" between professors and students.

"You have to do some looking to come to the conclusion that these sorts of relationships are prohibited," the university's lawyer, Kent E. Nelson, said at the news conference. "It is not as clear as we'd like it to be."

According to documents the university released, Mr. Bustamante faced complaints during his first semester on the job at Idaho, when female students told the psychology chairman of Mr. Bustamante's "flirtatious behavior and favoritism" in the classroom. Mr. Bustamante responded to the complaint by saying the students had misunderstood "his friendship with a student as a fellow Hispanic."

Then last December, an anonymous caller to a university hotline complained that Mr. Bustamante was having "sexual relationships with students." Administrators told the professor the university had "no tolerance" for such relationships, and Mr. Bustamante denied the allegation, according to university documents.

The documents say Mr. Bustamante told his department chairman during his first semester on the job at Idaho that he suffered from bipolar disorder that he managed with medication. Last May, Mr. Bustamante told his chairman he was suffering from withdrawal symptoms because of a change in his medication. The Moscow police have said Mr. Bustamante had four different kinds of prescription medication with him in the hotel room where he was found dead.

Despite the troubles he faced, university documents paint a picture of Mr. Bustamante as a talented teacher—who was nominated in 2009 for a "teaching excellence award"—and a prolific scholar, who at his third-year review in 2010 was determined to be on track to earn tenure at Idaho. Mr. Bustamante received good teaching evaluations, which the university said was particularly notable because he taught classes like statistics and research methods that students typically found difficult.

After the university brought Ms. Benoit's sexual-harassment complaint to his attention, university officials said, Mr. Bustamante told them he wanted to resign. His last official day was August 19, just three days before Ms. Benoit was killed.

University documents show that Idaho administrators repeatedly warned Ms. Benoit to be concerned about her safety, including in a meeting an official had with her on the day she was killed.

The documents also contain e-mail messages between Mr. Bustamante and Hi-Tec Systems Inc., a New Jersey company that develops new technologies for aviation safety and which appears to have offered him a job in July. April Perrone, the company's human-resources manager who wrote e-mail messages to Mr. Bustamante asking him to document his moving expenses to New Jersey, said in a telephone conversation with The Chronicle Thursday that she could not confirm whether the company had hired him.