Handling of a Murder-Suicide Draws Questions

Some ask whether the U. of Idaho, which followed its policies, did enough

The Benoit Family

Kathryn Benoit, a graduate student at the U. of Idaho, filed a complaint against a professor, who later killed her. The university's role has been questioned.
December 04, 2011

Ernesto A. Bustamante was a successful young psychology professor, known simply as "E" to a close following of graduate students at the University of Idaho who marveled at his intellect and valued his advice about their careers as well as their personal lives.

Kathryn Benoit was one of many students who gravitated toward Mr. Bustamante. She enrolled in one of his classes last fall, and by the end of the semester she had not only joined his research laboratory and made him her graduate adviser, but had also begun sleeping with him.

Their tumultuous relationship, however, soon began to fray. Ms. Benoit, who was 22, filed a complaint with the university in the summer, accusing Mr. Bustamante of sexual harassment and of threatening her life with a loaded gun.

By the beginning of this semester, both the graduate student and the assistant professor were dead.

What happened isn't in dispute: Police say that, on the evening of the first day of classes, Mr. Bustamante, 31, parked in an alley behind Ms. Benoit's house a block from the campus. When she stepped onto the back porch to smoke a cigarette, he shot her nearly a dozen times, in the chest and neck. Then he checked into a hotel less than a mile away, lay down on a bed, and shot himself in the head. With him in the room were a copy of Ms. Benoit's complaint, six guns, and four bottles of prescription medications for bi­polar disorder, anxiety, and depression.

Although the professor and the student are gone, concerns over the way the university handled Ms. Benoit's complaint remain. Idaho has taken the unprecedented step of releasing more than 4,200 documents on the case, including Mr. Bustamante's entire personnel file. The documents, which include e-mail messages and even scribbled notes, offer a behind-the-scenes glimpse at how a university responded to a student's accusations of violence and sexual har­assment at the hands of a troubled professor.

M. Duane Nellis, the president, says Idaho wanted to be "as transparent as possible," and that the documents show that it reacted to Ms. Benoit's complaint "immediately and decisively."

But while the university may have followed all of its own rules in dealing with Ms. Benoit's complaint, and gotten Mr. Bustamante to speedily resign, its attempts to handle a volatile situation were not enough to prevent two deaths. The case prompts questions about where an institution's responsibility ends, and whether it can ever effectively deal with such a complaint primarily on its own.

An independent panel named by Mr. Nellis to review the university's safety procedures released a report last week recommending that Idaho's policies be made clearer about exactly what administrators should do in a high-risk situation. Communication between administrators and the police should be more open in emergencies, the panel said.

Ms. Benoit's family, which has hired a lawyer, says the documents released by the university incriminate it rather than exonerate it. Administrators didn't do enough to protect Ms. Benoit, they say, or to stop Mr. Bustamante, who had been accused at least three times before of inappropriate behavior with female students and staff members.

"Why did the university continue to expose Katy, and the university's students, staff, and faculty, to a professor who they knew had exhibited unstable behavior?" Andy Benoit, Ms. Benoit's older brother, asked in an e-mail message to The Chronicle. "From what we know, we believe the university failed in its responsibilities to keep Katy safe."

'Eccentric Kind of Guy'

Both Ms. Benoit and Mr. Bustamante arrived at Idaho in the fall of 2007. It was his first academic job after earning a Ph.D. in psychology from Old Dominion University that same year. Mr. Bustamante had become familiar with Old Dominion when his mother, a psychology professor in Venezuela, where he grew up, spent a sabbatical year there. "He was extroverted, funny, and had a lot of friends," Alfredo E. Bustamante said of his younger brother in a telephone conversation with The Chronicle. "He was one of a kind: an eccentric kind of guy, and very passionate about whatever he got interested in."

As a student, Mr. Bustamante carved out a specialty in an area of psychology known as human factors. It involves studying how people interact with machines to make technology more useful. He focused most of his work on designing an alarm system with graduated levels of warning to give airline pilots more information about potential problems.

When he started at Idaho, Mr. Bustamante was just 27 years old, the youngest professor in the psychology department and the only one without a partner or family here. (He had been married briefly while at Old Dominion and was in a subsequent relationship there with a woman he called his fiancée, but that arrangement did not survive his move west.)

"I think he found many of us a bit boring," says Kenneth D. Locke, chairman of the depart­ment here, recalling that Mr. Bustamante was friendly with his colleagues but never socialized with them. Even on the campus he spent most of his time with students in his laboratory, a five-minute walk from the department in an isolated set of basement rooms away from the view of fellow professors.

Steffen Werner, an associate professor of psychology who chaired the search committee that hired Mr. Bustamante, recalls that the younger professor had good days and bad days. Often during faculty meetings he was an energetic participant, quick to offer help to his colleagues. But other times, says Mr. Werner, he would sit through an entire meeting in silence. "He told me he had phases where he was depressed." During Mr. Bustamante's first semester at Idaho, he told Mr. Locke that he suffered from bipolar disorder and took medication to help control it.

When he wasn't working, Mr. Bustamante played basketball and tennis and went salsa dancing—almost always with students, some of whom were just a few years younger than him. The fact that he regularly dated students was well known among those in his lab. "We would kind of just hear about it and go, OK, fine," says Nash Stanton, who was a graduate teaching assistant for Mr. Bustamante and worked with him from 2008 through 2010. "The attitude was: I see it happening, it's not really affecting me, I guess it's not really a big deal."

The university's stance on the issue was somewhat unclear. "A consensual romantic or sexual relationship between any faculty member and his or her student, while not expressly forbidden, is generally deemed unwise," reads a statement the university posted online. So Mr. Bustamante's behavior, while officially discouraged, didn't appear to break any rules.

But some students clearly resented it. During Mr. Bustamante's first semester on the job, a few of his female students told Mr. Locke, the department chairman, they thought their professor was displaying "flirtatious behavior and favoritism" in the classroom. The chairman brought it up with Mr. Bustamante, who said he was simply trading friendly banter with a young woman in his class, a fellow Hispanic.

"He said he was feeling homesick," Mr. Locke recalls. "He said, 'There aren't many people here who look like me.'" And he was right. On this rather homogenous campus in remote northern Idaho, Mr. Bustamante's shiny black hair, falling below his shoulders, made him stand out.

By his third year at Idaho, he had been nominated for a university teaching award and received a positive outlook for earning tenure. He had revived the student chapter of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, which under his guidance had "the highest number of engaged student members in recent memory," said a departmental committee that reviewed his performance in late 2009.

Mr. Locke says the student evaluations for Mr. Bustamante's class in research methods, which the chairman calls "the most feared course" in the psychology curriculum, were as high as they had ever been.

But among those hundreds of student evaluations released by the university, there were a few troubling comments, including one from the fall of 2010 that said Mr. Bustamante "talked about shooting students" during class. Mr. Locke says the isolated remark didn't raise an alarm. "Within the typical 100 comments a year," he says, "you will see some surprising and unusual ones, yes. But my typical pattern is to focus on the general comments."

Hotline Complaint

Ms. Benoit first enrolled as an under­graduate at Idaho with plans to be a music major. She had become an accomplished cellist, traveling to Europe with the Boise High School Chamber Orchestra. Her life had its complications: When she was 18, she gave birth to a son, whom she gave up for adoption, and she suffered from depression.

But at Idaho she was known as a fun-loving risk taker who joined the Alpha Gamma Delta sorority and wouldn't hesitate to jump off a 30-foot cliff into a river. Eventually she changed her major from music to psychology.

When Ms. Benoit met Mr. Bustamante, in the fall of 2010, he offered to help her navigate graduate school at Idaho, including secur­ing a teaching assistantship. Like many of his students, she was attracted by Mr. Bustamante's charm and intelligence and flattered by how interested he seemed in helping shape her career.

Even after they became lovers, though, the two were never monogamous. In fact, in December of last year, someone called a campus hotline and complained that Mr. Bustamante was having "romantic and sexual relationships with students," and that one of those relationships had become coercive, according to documents released by the university. Katherine Aiken, dean of the College of Letters, Arts, and Social Sciences, called Mr. Bustamante into her office, told him about the complaint, and said the university had no tolerance for sexual harassment. If he was involved with students, she recalls telling him, it must stop. "He looked me in the eye and said, 'This is totally untrue,'" Ms. Aiken remembers.

Ms. Aiken says the young woman named as the subject of abuse in the hotline complaint wasn't Ms. Benoit. But that young woman didn't consider her encounters with Mr. Bustamante sexual harassment and refused to file a complaint.

While it isn't unusual for students and faculty members to become romantically involved, in this college town the conditions may be riper than most. "Moscow is a small place, and our intellectual community bleeds over into the rest of the community," says Ms. Aiken. "We see our students at the farmers' market and at the movie. We have five or six restaurants in Moscow, and students, faculty, and staff are all there at the same time."

But Mr. Locke says professors in the psychology department were unaware of just how much time Mr. Bustamante spent with his students, and in particular with Ms. Benoit. "No one was close enough to recognize what was happening between them," he wrote in an e-mail to the dean after the professor's death, "or more broadly how Ernesto was increasingly taking advantage of students to fulfill needs of connection and approval."

But according to the documents released by the university, at least one of Mr. Bustamante's colleagues—another tenure-track professor of psychology named Benjamin K. Barton—says he had some suspicions. He shared them with a tenured professor in the department, Todd Thorsteinson. "I expressed to Todd that someone should speak to Ernie about his behavior before it caught up with him," Mr. Barton wrote in an e-mail message to Mr. Locke, as part of an explanation of why he had not previously told the chairman of his concerns. "I did not share what I knew, because I thought it might be perceived as troublemaking or back-stabbing." Neither Mr. Barton nor Mr. Thorsteinson would speak with The Chronicle.

A Loaded Gun

Just six months after the hotline complaint, the allegations against Mr. Bustamante escalated to a critical new level. Ms. Benoit came to Carmen Suarez, who directs the university's office of human rights, access, and inclusion, and said Mr. Bustamante had held a loaded gun to her head three times—in January, March, and May of this year. In a written complaint, she also said he had claimed to have five different personalities and carried guns with him everywhere, including to the campus.

Their relationship ended with the third gun incident in May, said Ms. Benoit, and since then she had come to believe that his behavior amounted to sexual harassment. She was afraid for her life, she said, and concerned about her future. "Most of my activities at this university are related to him," she wrote. "I don't want to ruin my academic career."

Some people who knew Ms. Benoit say she believed that Ms. Suarez would immediately call the police, and that Mr. Bustamante might even be arrested that day. But Ms. Suarez told The Chronicle that from the beginning, Ms. Benoit made it clear she did not want the university to inform the police of her allegations. So, while Ms. Suarez asked Ms. Benoit to call the police herself, no one from the university told law-enforcement officials about the reported gun threats. Kent Nelson, the university's in-house lawyer, did call the Moscow police the day Ms. Benoit first came in to complain, telling an officer simply that the university was sending a student "who had a domestic-violence issue."

Ms. Benoit did follow Ms. Suarez's advice and called Lt. David Lehmitz, a city police officer who is stationed on the Idaho campus. (The university contracts with the city to provide law enforcement.) Ms. Benoit asked whether Officer Lehmitz could help her devise a safety plan but never specifically mentioned why, he says. Some people, including Mr. Lehmitz, believe that she may have mistakenly believed the university had already briefed him on the details of Mr. Bustamante's gun threats.

After Mr. Lehmitz offered generic advice on keeping her cellphone charged and being aware of her surroundings, Ms. Benoit told her friends that the officer had blown off her concerns. "If she had told me she had been threatened with a firearm, it would have been handled in a totally different way," he says now. "I would have asked her where she was, and officers would have gone to her location for an interview." The police would have contacted Mr. Bustamante, says Mr. Lehmitz, "and potentially we could have done a search warrant for a weapon."

But none of that happened. University administrators finally mentioned the gun charges to police more than a month after the student had filed her complaint, when the campus officials met with an officer to assess the threat faced not only by Ms. Benoit but by university officials who were planning to meet with Mr. Bustamante about the charges in mid-July. During the threat-assessment meeting, a Moscow police officer confirmed that Mr. Bustamante held a permit to carry a concealed weapon. But even then, the officer never read Ms. Benoit's complaint, says Mr. Lehmitz. The officer did try to reach her by phone after the meeting with Idaho officials, but she never returned the calls.

At a news conference after the killings, a reporter asked university officials why they had never delivered a full account of Ms. Benoit's charges to the police. At first, Mr. Nelson, the university's lawyer, said it had not gone to the police because Ms. Benoit didn't want it to, and that "we had to follow laws with respect to personal information." But when the reporter asked whether the university was legally precluded from going to the police with the details, Mr. Nelson acknowledged that it was not. "In part, this was dealing with Katy's wishes," he said.

The federal law that governs colleges' release of student records says institutions can disclose information without a student's permission if it "is necessary to protect the health or safety of the student." That provision was added after the shootings at Virginia Tech, in 2007.

Among the thousands of documents the university released is an e-mail message sent to Ms. Suarez a week after Ms. Benoit was killed, with the sender's name blacked out. It says: "I am writing because I HAVE to ask you. Why didn't you take me seriously when I BEGGED you to involve the police in your investigation?"

In her response to the e-mail, Ms. Suarez made it clear that she thought the university had done everything it could and considered it Ms. Benoit's responsibility to get the help she needed. "I partnered with her to the best of my ability in advising her of the services available with the univer­sity and the larger community," Ms. Suarez wrote. "I do not know how any individual or community can prevent a tragedy like this when a deranged individual is determined to take lives."

Going to the Police

But Ann H. Franke, a lawyer in Washington who consults with higher-education leaders on risk-management issues, says that if she were facing a situation like the one at Idaho, she "would have gotten the office of public safety involved as fast as I could."

"I don't believe I would let any reluctance on the part of the complainant stay my hand because of the lethality of guns," she says. "When a student says, 'I don't want the cops involved,' you have to say, 'Why not? Let's get Officer Friendly in here and see what we can all do together.'"

Paul V. Verrecchia, president of the Inter­national Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, agrees. "On the surface, it looks like the university did pretty much everything it should have done," he says. "But I think I would have called the police and had her tell the police officer she didn't want them to be involved."

Instead, throughout the two months that followed Ms. Benoit's complaint—as the university contacted Mr. Bustamante and asked him to respond both in writing and then in a personal interview with university officials—Idaho repeatedly reminded Ms. Benoit to call the police if she felt unsafe, but left the decision up to her. After the first call to Officer Lehmitz, she never contacted the police again.

In his written response, sent in July, Mr. Bustamante skirted all of Ms. Benoit's charges, saying that while the two had developed a close friendship that led to "a fair amount of time socializing and sharing intimate aspects of our personal lives," there was no "romantic involvement." He said he had "most definitely not made any threats of violence," and suggested that Ms. Benoit's judgment was clouded by what he called her abuse of marijuana and prescription drugs.

When he came in for an interview with Ms. Suarez and another university official a couple of weeks later, Mr. Bustamante acknowledged that he and Ms. Benoit did have a sexual relationship, although he still denied the gun charges.

While guns are common in this part of Idaho, the university prohibits people from bringing them to the campus. Mr. Bustamante apparently did it anyway, something many of his students but none of his colleagues seemed to have known. Students who worked with Mr. Bustamante say he had become fascinated with guns. "I remember he invited me over to his place once in early 2010 and showed me back to his bedroom and pulled out a gun," recalls Mr. Stanton, the former graduate student. "He wasn't intending to do anything with it. He was just excited and said, 'I've got this new piece.'"

No one who spoke with The Chronicle said Mr. Bustamante ever seemed violent. In fact, his colleagues and graduate students say he hardly ever even raised his voice. And he had no criminal record.

When Mr. Bustamante met with Ms. Suarez about Ms. Benoit's charges, he asked what would happen if he resigned. Ms. Suarez told him the university's investigation would end. Later that day, the professor sent an e-mail to Mr. Locke, his department chairman, saying he wanted to resign. The university set the effective date for a month from then, just before the start of the current academic year.

Mr. Nellis, the president, says the institution's chief concern was getting Mr. Bustamante off the campus as quickly as possible. Rather than trying to fire him, something that could have taken months, since he was a tenure-track professor, Idaho accepted his resignation in order to speed his departure, Mr. Nellis says.

But Mr. Bustamante was still clearly a threat to Ms. Benoit. He secured a job doing research for a New Jersey company called Hi-Tec Systems, which hired him in July pending a background check. But in late August he was still here in Moscow, living with a former student whom he had dated, and preparing to move, the police say.

As a Venezuelan citizen, Mr. Bustamante was on a temporary work visa and had to be sponsored by an employer to remain in the United States. That may explain why he acted so quickly to find another job. April Perrone, human-resources manager at Hi-Tec, says the company typically extends a job offer and then performs a rigorous background check before bringing new employees on board. She says the check would have involved asking Idaho officials, "Do you have any reason to question the trustworthiness or honesty of this person?"

Mr. Bustamante must have known that the check might have turned up his troubles with Ms. Benoit. Perhaps he worried that even though the inquiry at Idaho had ended, Ms. Benoit's complaint might continue to haunt—and harm—him, preventing him from securing another job, which could have led to his deportation.

Unusual Openness

Since the murder-suicide, the university has been more open than most institutions under such circumstances,­ acting quickly both to show how it had handled the case and to make policy changes. It released the 4,200 documents after joining with the news media this fall in successfully arguing before a judge that laws governing the confidentiality of personnel records should no longer apply in Mr. Bustamante's case, because he was dead.

"The university really did want to tell everything here," says Ms. Franke, the risk-management lawyer, "and that is quite unusual."

Idaho has moved to adopt a stricter ban on "consensual relationships" between professors and students. Under a new policy, approved last month by the Faculty Senate, the university says it prohibits romantic or sexual relationships between professors and the students they super­vise. If such a relationship does develop, the policy says, the professor must disclose it to his or her super­visor and either end the relationship or ensure that another professor supervises the student. The policy is similar to those on many other campuses and to the recommendations of the American Association of University Professors.

Since the deaths, professors and graduate students in the psychology department are meeting regularly. Mr. Bustamante succeeded in creating a tight-knit family among graduate students in his laboratory, but it's clear now that other professors were not as involved as they should have been, says Mr. Locke. "As chairman, the human-factors graduate students felt distant from me," he says, adding that "out of a mixture of loyalty and fear," none of them had talked about Mr. Bustamante's guns and womanizing.

"After this, we have implored them to be more open," Mr. Locke says. "It's clear the grad students knew so much, and we didn't."