Midnight passed and the DJ kept playing. It was a joint birthday party for Libras, who are born, fortunately or not, under the scales of justice.
The hosts lived two blocks from the College of Santa Fe, on Vitalia Street. Approximately 30 guests were crowded inside and on the porch, drinking and trying to talk over the electronic music.
Nobody should have been surprised when the police came. The party could be heard down the block, and the Santa Fe Police Department had stepped up its patrols of the area.
But even those who understood how tense things were getting between the party-going students and the local police could not have foreseen what happened that night: the screaming, the struggle and the subsequent, sobering prospect of an 18-month prison sentence for one young woman.
Before she found herself in serious trouble—charged, among other things, with crushing a police officer’s testicles—Karla Kerner thought CSF took care of its community.
But Kerner, a petite, tattooed 22-year-old who finished school in May, quickly discovered what every new graduate eventually does: She’s on her own.
The first clue came when a college nurse declined to photograph injuries Kerner says the police inflicted during her arrest. “I paid health insurance for two years,” she says, “and never took so much as a Band-Aid.” Then she learned the college offered “no legal help, no aid, no advice” to students in trouble with the law.
To Kerner and her friends at CSF—many of whom have had their own recent encounters with police—the takeaway seems clear.
“Especially now, since the school’s having so much trouble—maybe going under—they don’t want to get themselves involved,” Kerner says. “They’re not willing to stand behind the students.”
Even for students who’ve kept out of handcuffs, it’s a scary time at the College of Santa Fe.
Just two weeks ago, students struggled to finish their finals without knowing whether they’d return in January to new classes or an empty campus.
The nearly 150-year-old private college is some $30 million in debt, which students and faculty blame on past mismanagement. Administrators have tried various ways to raise money—such as introducing sports teams and selling some land fronting St. Michael’s Drive to a bank—but none have proved sufficient.
The college’s last and best hope seemed to be a takeover by Laureate Education, Inc., until CSF President Stuart Kirk announced the Laureate deal had fallen through just as students and staff left for Thanksgiving. The sparse, ill-timed announcement seemed typical of CSF’s official responses in difficult times.
Administrators hope the state of New Mexico will take over the school. Rather than wait to find out, many students are preparing transfer applications. Their anxiety is apparent in every discussion. One comment recently left on SFR’s Web site sums up the fear:
“[S]hame on you College of Santa Fe, you frauds, you cheats, you horrible people. You stole my money, you conned me, you made a fool of me and every other student at this college.”
Yet even before students knew their academic futures hung in the balance, an unprecedented series of conflicts with local police this year had frayed their nerves.
Some students feel the police have targeted them for harassment. Administrators count three students arrested on campus in the fall semester and five more arrested off campus. In the three semesters prior, no students were arrested on campus.
Santa Fe Police don’t deny they’ve stepped up their patrols at CSF, although they maintain harassment is the last thing on their minds. Rather, police say, they’re taking “a more proactive role” in what is essentially a large private neighborhood that has historically stayed off the radar of law enforcement.
Ariana Lombardi, a CSF freshman working on a documentary about the rising tensions with police, takes a dispassionate view of the controversy. While Lombardi thinks the police haven’t always behaved ethically, she says, “Some of the kids are like, ‘Fuck the police. I can do what I want.”
On that point, the SFPD has proven them wrong. And the administration, essentially powerless to prevent the police from patrolling their private but wide-open campus, have offered little reassurance.
“Everybody’s pissed off,” Cole Wilson, a CSF teaching assistant and recent graduate, says. “But they don’t know what to do.”
Anger and uncertainty: No two words better summarize the mood at one of Santa Fe’s oldest and largest institutions.
Wilson counts himself lucky. He left Karla Kerner’s party maybe 10 minutes before the police showed up.
He had had his own run-in a month before that, on Sept. 3, while taking his usual route home through campus on his bicycle. Because Michelle Obama was speaking at CSF that day, guards from exotic law enforcement agencies like the Secret Service, backed up by the increasingly familiar SFPD, swarmed campus.
The police checkpoint at the gates annoyed Wilson. “I paid $30,000 a semester to go to that school, so I felt pretty entitled to ride my bike down the sidewalk,” he says.
As he pedaled by, an SFPD officer shouted for him to stop. Wilson obliged. “I go to school here. I’m not a terrorist,” he recalls saying. The officer, according to Wilson, said, “‘You’d better get the fuck out of here.’” Wilson then decided to lecture the officer about his rights as a citizen.
“‘You’ve got 30 seconds to get the fuck out of my face or I’m going to arrest you,’” the officer said, in Wilson’s telling. “He said, ‘You know, it’s dumb shits like you that make my job as hard as it is.’ I told him, ‘It’s people like you that are the problem with the whole world.’”
Another SFPD patrol car arrived, and the officer “changed his whole song and dance,” Wilson says. The threat of arrest proved hollow. But Wilson, defeated, had to take the long way home.
When he got home, he filed a complaint against the officer. And, like others who have had problems with the police this academic year, Wilson also told CSF’s Dean of Students, Joseph Fitzpatrick, about the argument. “I believe Cole handled that situation in an extremely efficient and responsible manner,” Fitzpatrick says in a response to written questions from SFR.
In a memo passed to students, who in turn passed it to SFR, Fitzpatrick counts 29 police encounters with students between late August and early November. Most of those incidents were, like Wilson’s, inconsequential. Nonetheless, the trend was unsettling to the 417 students who live on campus and weren’t used to police officers walking through the dorms.
Noting the officer’s “supposed” motives, Fitzpatrick’s memo betrays some ambivalence about the police presence:
Aug. 28, 11:36 p.m. — Police officer found wandering through Kennedy Hall looking for a party to break up.
Sept. 14, 9:00 p.m. — SFPD respond to noise complaint at Alumni Hall. Uncertain who contacted, but wasn’t Security.
Sept. 15, 2:00 a.m. — SFPD on campus. Security let into King Hall. Supposedly SFPD received a call about noise and drinking. Nothing occurred.
Sept. 28, 2:00 a.m. — SFPD responded to a call regarding possible assault. While on campus, arrested a student for paraphernalia/possession.
And then there’s Fitzpatrick’s notation of the infamous Libra birthday bash:
Oct. 5, ? — SFPD arrest one student and one alum at an off-campus party for multiple charges including resisting arrest and assault on a police officer.
The exact timeline of Karla Kerner’s party isn’t the only question hanging over the night. It’s also unclear how police came to enter the house. What is documented is that by 4:10 am on Oct. 5, one host and one guest would be photographed, fingerprinted and booked into Santa Fe County jail.
Kerner’s friends say the police simply walked inside without asking. At least, none of her invited guests will admit to showing them into her home.
Will Smith, a 19-year-old sophomore, says he was inside, walking toward the front door when he saw it get pushed open. “I saw the flashlights and I knew it was police,” Smith says. “I did not hear a knock.”
“Immediately, they asked if we had any drugs and, when everybody said no, they said, ‘Well, c’mon, you’re from the College of Santa Fe—you’re an art school. I know you have drugs,’” Smith recalls. “Everybody was like, ‘No, we don’t have any, blah blah blah.’”
It was well past midnight. By that point, Jesse Lester, a CSF sophomore who goes by “Jester,” had been passed out for a couple of hours. “I love Knob Creek—it’s so good—but I drank probably close to two-thirds of that bottle,” he says.
Lester, a skinny, animated 24-year-old, shared the bed with one of the hosts, Kerner. Kerner also was trying to sleep. She had to work the next day in the college cafeteria.
They woke to shouting; Lester was dazed, but Kerner quickly realized the police had arrived.
“I heard them terrorizing the guests—‘We know this is a CSF party; you’re all going to lose your scholarships; you’re all going to get kicked out of college. Everybody take out all your bongs, all your alcohol, all your drugs,’” Kerner recalls them saying.
As their friends in the living room produced their IDs, Lester and Kerner stayed put in her bedroom. Flashlights shone through the window. Guests saw seven or eight squad cars parked outside.
“I started sobering up pretty quick,” Lester says.
An officer pounded on the door, saying, “Open up!” Kerner shouted back, demanding a warrant. In her mind, the men with badges in her house were “domestic terrorists.”
Kerner’s dim view of authority was forged, in part, at CSF. “I’m a political science major,” she says, “so I always knew we lived in a fascist police state and that we’re living in a war zone, basically.” Still, she says, “I thought I had some basic, fundamental civil liberties.”
Kerner, barely over five feet tall and 115 pounds, held the door shut as long as she could.
“I was terrified,” she says. “I told them to get the fuck out of my house, because I thought that I had that right.”
Kerner, shoeless and wearing a tank top, was pushing against the door when it burst open with an officer on the other side.
“The guy jumped on top of her, tackled her,” Lester says. “She started screaming bloody murder.”
Kerner shrieked and flailed as the officer handcuffed her arms behind her back. “I was a victim of both assault and rape when I was younger—I was traumatized,” she says. “I was screaming to my friend Jess, ‘Help me!’”
In response, Lester reached out his hand. “All I did was say, ‘Please let her go.’ That’s essentially when I got dragged out into a cop car,” Lester says.
As the officer wrangled Kerner out of her bedroom, a party guest whipped out a cell phone and took some grainy video.
The clips show glum-faced students lined up along the walls, looking resigned, as Kerner lies face down in the doorway, handcuffed and screaming.
As the officer struggles to hoist her up, Kerner yells, “Get off of me you fucking racist! You fucking racist!”
By the night’s end, at least nine students, including Smith, were charged with underage drinking. Lester was charged with resisting arrest and disorderly conduct.
And Kerner, in addition to charges of resisting arrest and disorderly conduct, also was charged with possession of drug paraphernalia and a fourth-degree felony: battery upon an officer of the peace.
“At the time, I supposedly assaulted him, I was pretty incapacitated,” Kerner says. “I didn’t grab anything.”
As word of her arrest spread, Kerner became a cause célèbre among student activists. Others, aware that CSF faced bigger problems, saw ambiguity.
Irina Zerkin, the student representative to CSF’s board of trustees, says Kerner is a “beloved” member of the community. “I know her intentions were good,” Zerkin says. “But the fact of the matter is, she manhandled a cop.”
She adds: “That doesn’t mean it’s OK that they manhandled her.”
The administration has stayed mum. (“The College is not in a position to comment on this incident. It was not a College-sponsored event nor [were] there College officials present,” Dean Fitzpatrick writes to SFR in response to questions about the party.)
But as dramatic as Kerner’s story was, an even more serious case was about to spread through CSF’s rumor mill—this one involving the alleged rape of a 22-year-old senior by another student.
Given that CSF has no functioning student government and no campus newspaper, you’d expect administrators would find it easy to control the information coming out of campus. In the age of Facebook, however, that may not be possible.
A graphic—make that horrific—account of the alleged rape, which occurred in August, can be found in a Facebook group created weeks later to support the victim. She writes that after drinking with a fellow student, watching a movie and giving him a massage, he overpowered her, raped her vaginally and anally as she kicked him and finally bit his thigh.
The victim, who has since transferred to another school, waited 10 days before reporting the incident, and only then filed for sexual harassment, not rape. She writes, although Dean Fitzpatrick put a restraining order on her alleged assailant, she is “dumbfounded” with how the college handled her case.
“The Dean found my case ‘inconclusive’ and brought the accused back on campus but with ‘restrictions,’” the accuser writes. Further, she claims, Fitzpatrick’s failure to “specifically inform” her of her right to report the incident to police may have hindered their ability to gather physical evidence.
A police report filed Sept. 11 says simply, “A female reported that she was sexually assaulted at the College of Santa Fe.” The case remains open.
CSF’s vice president for administration and communications, Marcia Sullivan, offers a brief response: “The college will not comment on this situation as it affects the privacy of our students.”
Realistically, that privacy is gone. The Facebook group with the rape allegations had 124 members as of last week—a sizable share of the 615 undergraduates enrolled this semester.
Kerner says there has been “a lot of talk” about the alleged rape—except from the administration. “They kind of shut it down,” Kerner says.
“I wouldn’t have as much of a problem with the police presence on campus, if somebody had been raped,” Lester says of the incident. “But that’s not why they’re on campus.”
The sexual violence, combined with the growing tally of police confrontations and dark rumors about the college’s debt, made the fall semester a grim one.
“It’s a tough time, and it’s really hard to say what the cause of it is,” Zerkin, the student trustee, says. “Mercury’s in retrograde—I don’t know.”
While their communications with outsiders lacked urgency, internally, administrators knew the deepening student anxieties demanded a response. CSF’s debts weren’t going away and neither were the police.
A few days after Kerner’s arrest, officers began handing out hundreds of dollars in parking tickets on their late-night patrols of the campus. Though the police were within their rights, this struck some students as unfair, given that the college is private property.
On Oct. 9, CSF Security Director James Ardis sent a campus-wide e-mail to address concerns about the police.
“While a surprise to us that these [handicapped parking] tickets were issued, the police do have jurisdiction,” Ardis writes. “Since the start of this semester, we have seen an increase in police presence on campus…We have also witnessed an increase in vehicle patrols through the campus from entrance to entrance.
Ardis also tries to clear up “misunderstandings” about the police’s ability to enforce the law on campus. He writes, “In reviewing recent incidents involving Santa Fe Police, we have found no evidence that any student’s Fourth Amendment rights have been violated on campus.”
Ardis also offers students a word of advice: “Common sense can be a valuable tool in avoiding negative incidents.”
Given the mood in the dorms, that was good advice.
Common sense would rule out yelling, “Fuck you, bacon!” at a patrol car as it rolled through campus at night, as a group of students are rumored to have done last month, prompting an officer to follow them inside the dorms. (None of the students said to be involved returned SFR’s calls.)
Common sense also would dictate heeding an officer’s order to stop.
On Oct. 22, Ben Plaza, a 20-year-old sophomore music major with long blonde hair, was walking past his dorm with a visiting friend. They had been drinking vodka. Plaza says they sat down in the street because they were tired. Officer Christopher McCord—who helped issue citations at Kerner’s party—reported that Plaza and his friend were “playing chicken” with traffic.
Plaza saw three patrol cars drive by; McCord yelled for them to stop, but Plaza says, “I think we walked for maybe 10 more seconds.”
That was probably a mistake. Officers gave chase and “bent me over and threw me down on the curb,” Plaza says. “They didn’t give us a breathalyzer test or anything.”
Charged with underage drinking, Plaza and his friend spent the night in jail. In his mind, that was punishment enough.
Before the police patrols increased their presence on campus, he believes he wouldn’t even have gotten arrested.
The college, of course, bans underage drinking—along with of-age drinking in public areas. The student handbook says students may enter a treatment program “as a total or partial alternative to disciplinary action.”
The handbook does not say, “We’ll call the cops on you.”
In fact, it suggests that students should not be subjected to the judicial system, noting that “the disciplinary procedures of the College are not identical to procedures in criminal or civil cases but are, instead, designed to assure fundamental fairness so that students will be protected from any arbitrary or capricious disciplinary action.”
At his arraignment, Plaza says, the judge “seemed like he thought it was kind of ridiculous that we were in there, too.”
And, Plaza says: “I think campus security is even more unhappy about the cops being here, because this is their turf. They can handle it themselves.”
Maybe so. It’s not like CSF is a giant, Jell-O-shot-swilling, run-riot-at-homecoming State U. As of Dec. 1, the college had issued 81 internal sanctions for alcohol or drug violations in the fall semester, according to Dean Fitzpatrick. That’s not a big increase from Fall 2007, which had 76 sanctions.
This system seemed to suit everyone fine—except for the SFPD. Effective or not, campus security—by definition—doesn’t concern itself with off-campus parties like Karla Kerner’s.
A small sticker on Kerner’s door, printed by the Oregon-based CrimethInc Ex-Workers’ Collective, warns: “Community Watch Area—Police Not Welcome.”
“You know that’s the first thing they saw when they put the flashlight up to the door,” Lester says.
Granted, throwing a loud party with an anarchist slogan on your door is like speeding down the freeway in a VW van with a giant pot leaf painted on the side. But in court papers, Officer Jaime Bisagna writes that he was simply responding to a noise complaint at Kerner’s address.
Bisagna’s report glosses over how he first entered the home. He writes: “I parked in front of [a neighboring house] and continued to hear the music. Most everyone inside the party was compliant and followed our instructions.”
Most everyone except Kerner, locked in her bedroom. “I smelled a strong odor of marijuana coming from the area of the bedroom door,” Bisagna writes.
He knocked on the door—“Open up!”
“Get the fuck out of my house, you domestic terrorists!” Kerner replied.
At which point, Bisagna writes, the entire party broke out in cheers.
With Officer McCord watching approximately 30 people, and Kerner “exciting a crowd that could have easily got out of control,” Bisagna felt “officer safety” required he open the door.
Bisagna knocked again. Kerner quickly opened the door, he says—then shut it on his foot. The officer “forced” his way in and told Kerner to calm down. “I used a calm voice and told her to just relax so we could figure things out.” Kerner swore at him again, Bisagna writes, “and then pushed me in the chest.”
As Bisagna moved to arrest her, she assumed a fetal position. He had trouble handcuffing her. The whole time, Bisagna writes, Kerner screamed so loud that someone in the area called emergency dispatch to report it.
As Bisagna carried Kerner to his car, he writes, “She reached behind with one of her hands and forcefully squeezed my genitals so hard it caused me to collapse.”
Finally, having returned to the bedroom “to locate a missing leather keeper from my duty belt,” Bisagna found a large Z-shaped bong full of warm water in Kerner’s closet.
As an institution, CSF hasn’t always welcomed the police.
It’s part of a tricky balance many colleges maintain. Administrators need to stay on good terms with the police. At the same time—because nervous parents sign so many tuition checks—they’d prefer to handle matters quietly, if and when students break the law.
“I’m not saying [the] college has ignored us,” SFPD Deputy Chief Aric Wheeler says. “But we have other entities—for example, the public schools—saying, ‘Hey guys, we want your help.’”
Police and college officials met in October and November, when relations were most tense, to hash out how they’d deal with one another in the future. Now both parties—tipped off weeks ago that SFR was planning this story—call those meetings positive and productive.
But it’s not clear what results, exactly, they produced. Police want CSF to create a neighborhood watch to keep them abreast of any problems, rather than handling problems internally. Dean Fitzpatrick, however, writes there have been “no changes to policy, procedure, or training recently.”
That may change. In the coming year, Wheeler says, administrators will give police full access to campus so officers can document its layout and be prepared in case of a Virginia Tech-style rampage.
That’s a sensible precaution. But the department’s focus on CSF is somewhat puzzling given that most of the violent crime in Santa Fe lately has occurred outside the college’s adobe gates.
The night of Oct. 20, one night after a 16-year-old boy shot another teenager outside JC Penney, Security Director Ardis sent another campus-wide e-mail, noting that SFPD would be performing “saturation patrols”—meaning two or three patrol cars per hour—on campus. This was supposedly in “response to gang violence” at the shopping center, four miles away.
If such patrols are meant to inspire a sense of safety, for some students, they’ve had the opposite effect.
“No one’s really sure of if they leave campus if they’re being targeted or not,” Plaza says. “So I guess they did their job, in keeping underage people from drinking.”
And maybe it’s for the best that fewer students will be shouting, “Fuck you, bacon.”
“To be perfectly honest, if I were a cop, I’d probably have a little distrust for college kids, too,” Zerkin says. “Because of the liberal-radical nature of this school, people are really quick to say, ‘The police, the pigs, are coming to get us.’ There’s probably some truth to that. But some of the students could do a better job of taking accountability for their actions.”
Two months after her release from jail, Kerner, who is estranged from her family, has only recently found a lawyer: Santiago Juarez of Española. Juarez didn’t return a message left with his secretary, but Lester and Kerner say he may file a lawsuit on Kerner’s behalf, on the grounds that police unlawfully entered Kerner’s home.
Unlike a lot of students, Lester isn’t rushing to transfer from CSF. He plans to stick it out through the spring. After that, who knows? He’d like to go some place “with real people power”—maybe Cuba.
On Dec. 8, Kerner had a date with First Judicial District Court Judge Stephen Pfeffer. With Lester in the courtroom for moral support, she pleaded not guilty to her felony charge.
Since the bust, her house has been “deserted.” By most accounts, the party scene—on and off campus—has quieted as well.
After the arrests, the ongoing patrols, the alleged rape and fears about the college’s future—which won’t go away for weeks, at least—students have heard little more than vague reassurances from the administration.
“I think they were worried about bad publicity, but they couldn’t really have any worse publicity right now,” Kerner says. “A lot of us feel like this is it—this is the school’s last hurrah.” SFR