We know she grew up in Vancouver, WA, that she was 21 when she died, and she was found murdered at 11:53 am on Tuesday, May 29, approximately four months ago. At the time of her death, she was working as a residence hall manager at the University of Portland (UP), a private, Catholic University in North Portland, where she went to school and was one of two students living in her dormitory over the summer months. She would have been a senior the following year--a music education major. After having dinner with her the previous Sunday night, her friends discovered her dead in her dorm room in Mehling Hall.
Today, the UP functions without any overt signs of tragedy. The campus, which sits on the Columbia bluffs, seems safe, clean, and insular even in relation to the divey North Portland bar called the MouseTrap, only a couple miles away. The mere suggestion of murder seems ridiculous--which is exactly the problem. In the little they've said publicly about the incident, the UP administration has been direct and sympathetic with their sorrow over Catherine's murder. Yet, what they've said about campus security, as well as the actions they've taken to address the aftermath of her death, have demonstrated a disturbing attempt to sweep the entire incident under the carpet.
In a murder uncannily similar to that of Catherine Johnson, Jeanne Ann Clery was beaten, raped, and murdered in her dormitory on April 5, 1986. She was a student at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, and was killed by another student who was attempting to rob her room while she slept. She was 20 years old.
Jeanne's killer was caught by local law enforcement officers and sentenced to death. He was a fellow Lehigh student whom Jeanne had never met, and he walked into her room through three unlocked doors, all of which were propped open.
Naturally, Jeanne's parents were emotionally destroyed, and they looked to officials at Lehigh to reassure them that justice would be served and campus safety improved. Instead, Connie and Howard Clery ran into barrier after barrier of resistance from the college. The officials at Lehigh College produced a "report," which concluded that there was "no negligence," on the part of the University, and that "present safety policies [were] complete." According to the Clerys, the report was written despite the University's knowledge that, prior to Jeanne's death, 181 doors had been reported propped open in her dormitory.
"The aftermath of this crime became for us a learning experience that changed our lives," write Jeanne's parents on the Security On Campus (SOC) website, a campus safety organization they consequently founded. To their horror, they discovered that cover-up attempts like Jeanne's were incredibly common occurrences on college campuses. Most often, murder is covered up out of concern for a school's image.
"We learned that crime on campus was one of America's best-kept secrets," they explain. "Until 1988, only four percent of America's colleges reported crime statistics to the FBI, or generally speaking, to students, parents, or anyone else."
Since then, The Clerys have spearheaded a number of laws, including the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, which requires all colleges to report crime statistics.
The stories of Jeanne and Catherine are, obviously, the stuff of a parent's worst nightmare. But in reality, the basic tenets of Clery's message are simply common sense, and colleges are not actually havens for random murders. UP, for example, has never reported another homicide on campus. According to SOC, 80 percent of campus crimes are student-on-student and the majority could be easily prevented by locking doors, using caution when drinking, and being careful not to walk alone at night. Accomplishing and enforcing these safety measures is a matter of being as honest and as straightforward with the public as possible.
"I believe and recommend that we tell everybody the truth," says Dr. Scott Poland, who specializes in handling crisis situations in schools. Poland has handled the aftermath of more than 10 school deaths, including the Columbine shootings. He points out that being honest with the students will both deflate rumors and keep the student body safe.
Yet, from the beginning, UP has resisted any public statements about the murder, leaving the public--and more importantly, the student body--in the dark. To the school's credit, they did contribute to Catherine's funeral, held at a local church. But though they initially held a press conference announcing Catherine's death, as well as declared that they had increased the number of safety officers-- emphasizing that, "counselors in the University's health center are on call 24 hours a day"--they soon quit talking about the murder altogether.
In fact, they began insisting that people not talk about it. "UP Students Warned Not to Talk About Murder," went the headline to a KOIN 6 News segment, which aired August 23. That day, a campus-wide email was sent from University President David Tyson. Any person who "jeopardized the conduct of the Catherine Johnson murder investigation will be subject to immediate termination," read the email. A University spokesperson told KOIN that the University was concerned about anyone "accidentally revealing or compromising the investigation," yet, at the point the email was issued--nearly three months after Catherine's murder--police had already begun extensive investigation, which meant talking to everyone who knew Catherine. Logically, any individual who had information about the case and was willing to come forward would have spoken with the police months earlier.
What is a more likely motive for the email is UP's concern about their image. At the time the email was issued, freshmen were only a week away from starting classes. And not only had there been no arrests made in Catherine's murder, but police had been absolutely silent about any progress in the investigation. (As is the case today. Phone calls from the Mercury to all three case investigators went unreturned.) As school began, the most students had heard about the investigation was that DNA samples had been taken from students who were on campus at the time of the murder.
"THIS INTERVIEW IS OVER."
Surprisingly, the Vice President of Student Services, John Goldrick, actually consented to an interview with the Mercury regarding the aftermath of Catherine's death. Yet, after less than five minutes, it was clear that Goldrick had no intention of discussing the incident at any length and was visibly defensive. "I have no interest in discussing this if you're going to objectify Catherine," he said, after being asked to talk about the events that unfolded on the day the school discovered Catherine's body. He refused to discuss the challenges of addressing the hardest part of a school crisis--the counseling provided to students, as well as the increased security measures that the campus must enforce. "The hardest part of dealing with a crisis like this is dealing with people like you," he informed the Mercury. "This interview is over."
On August 29, the University held a campus-wide service in honor of Catherine. The mood of the service was similar to that of any other Catholic service. Students were quietly respectful as they entered. A few cried. The rest of the service was similarly calm and extremely formal. In fact, with the exception of a few words said in honor of Catherine and her parents, the whole event was unremarkable. The choir sang traditional Catholic songs. Psalms were read by deadpan, solemn reverends.
The college's lack of emotion at the memorial is perhaps the most disturbing part of the entire incident. Even if Catherine's murderer is brought to justice, and other safety hazards are prevented in the future, the campus needs to have an opportunity to express their grief.
"Everybody needs to talk," says Dr. Poland. "Students need to have a chance to help the family, to grieve through rituals, to have some kind of memorial. People need a way of channeling all this horror or anger that they have, and an enlightened administration would provide them that."
Instead, the administration has enforced a mood that is stifling. "I'd never really heard anything about the murder, before I got the email," said an anonymous employee. "But there was something about it that was so upsetting, so silencing. The message they sent was basically that we aren't allowed to discuss the entire incident, and if we do, if we hear something, anything, we'll be fired."