'We're Always Up Against Something New'

So you think nothing happens on a college campus? Tell that to the BCPD detectives

By Stephen Gawlik
Staff Writer

On most any day Boston College presents the idyllic college campus, with its tree-lined walkways, gothic buildings and the peal of the bells atop Gasson Hall.


The Boston College Police Department's detective bureau (L-R): Lt. Eugene Neault, Sgt. John Ellis and Sgt. Shawn Dejong. "It's understandable that people don't even know we exist," says Neault, a 24-year veteran. "But that's okay."
Not exactly the kind of place where three savvy, street-wise detectives would make a living. Or is it?

"It's understandable that people don't even know we exist," said Lt. Eugene Neault, a 24-year veteran of the Boston College Police Department. "But that's okay."

Neault, Sgt. Shawn Dejong and Sgt. John Ellis make up the BCPD detective bureau. They are the first to admit that Boston College is not exactly the hotbed of criminal activity that might be found in other settings. But that doesn't mean they don't have their work cut out for them, or that they haven't led the way in solving some bedeviling cases.

The detectives' skills have been on display in recent months as they helped solve a pair of major, high-profile crimes: a thief who had allegedly looted several BC offices and a student hacker charged with stealing sensitive data from University computers.

"We don't have the violent crime here that you might find elsewhere," said Neault. "But that doesn't mean we're any less busy."

On a typical weekday during the academic year, the officers estimate that the number of people on BC's two campuses swells to roughly 30,000, about the population of a small town. "When you've got a population of that size," said Dejong, "things are going to happen."

Fortunately for the University community, when "things" do happen they are dealt with by skilled professionals who possess an expert understanding not only of police work and the law, but also of the unique characteristics of a place like BC.

First, there is BC's location, on the edge of a major city and readily accessible by public transportation, yet adjacent to quiet upscale neighborhoods. In addition to students and employees, on most days the campus sees a flow of delivery personnel, vendors, prospective students and families, and various other visitors - not all of them authorized or welcome.

As Dejong explains, a college campus houses a higher-than-usual concentration of well-educated people, who tend to be particularly helpful in answering questions and providing details. But as the detectives also point out, the human frailties - stress, jealousy, anger, greed - that can be a factor in any crime are as common on a college campus as anywhere else.

Each morning the trio reads through all reports filed by BCPD patrol officers, and every incident that requires an investigation is pursued. Neault estimates that in a given year the trio reads through 4,000 reports that lead to about 800 investigations.

While success rates vary depending on the category of crime - and, as the detectives note, not all reported incidents turn out to be crimes - Neault reports that BCPD is "well above the norm" when compared to municipal police departments.

The detectives acknowledge that some crimes are less significant than others are, but it doesn't mean they pay any less attention to them.

"We believe that the victim of every crime deserves a detective. They are ultimately who we work so hard for," said Neault.

Investigations require that the detectives interview witnesses, victims and suspects, collect physical and other material evidence, and gather information and reports from other agencies, such as crime labs or other police departments. They must also work closely with Suffolk and Middlesex County district attorneys to investigate and prosecute criminals and have to offer testimony, when required, at hearings.

The realities of investigative work - the time it takes to track down evidence, witnesses and suspects - as well as the slow pace of the legal system, mean the detectives are usually working multiple cases.
"It's really like you've got about 25 different jigsaw puzzles in front of you," explained Ellis, whose father was a Boston police officer. "Our job is to put the pieces together."

In January, the detectives were credited for investigating a series of crimes that led to the arrest of a former BC custodian who allegedly stole from BC offices as well as the United Parcel Service, where he was also employed.

The investigation into the thefts began when Neault and Dejong developed information given them by Officer Laurene Keating and went to the suspect's home one evening to question him about a harassment allegation involving another University employee.

Their suspect was not home, but his son opened the door and unwittingly revealed something that the detectives were really seeking: an Oriental rug stolen from a faculty member, who had given a detailed description and drawing of the item.

The detectives told the son to call his father and ask him to come home. The officers then contacted Chelsea police who obtained a search warrant before seizing the stolen items. Before long, police from Watertown and Harvard University, state troopers and UPS security personnel were on the case.

More than 150 items, including antique paintings, jewelry, oriental rugs, sports memorabilia, antique books, electronic equipment, as well as $6,000 in cash were confiscated. Among the valuables recovered was a sculpture reported stolen earlier that day from the Law Library on Newton Campus and an 18th-century painting that had previously been on loan to Harvard University's Fogg Museum.

The suspect has since been released on bail and is awaiting trial. In all, the investigation resulted in the seizure of some $300,000 in stolen merchandise.

"It was really satisfying because it was personal items that were recovered," said Dejong. "It was nice to be able to return things to people."

Another recent case reflects a trend BC detectives say is on the rise: electronic crime. Last fall, a student allegedly hacked into dozens of campus computers, stole personal information about thousands of students, staff, and faculty, and used it to make charges against other students' school accounts, according to an indictment handed up last month by a Middlesex County grand jury.

Thanks to his expertise on the subject, Ellis was able to help crack the case, identify the student and collect the appropriate evidence. The student is now awaiting trial and has been suspended from Boston College.

"We are ahead of the curve in this area compared to other universities and way ahead of most cities and towns," said Ellis, who has gone through extensive training on information security and identity theft.

Ellis says that college police departments are more advanced in this area of law enforcement because it is younger, educated people who make wider use of the Internet - such as e-mail and "chat" technology - than criminals from other demographics.

"The interesting thing about crimes like this is that your jurisdiction is the whole world, not just Newton and Boston."

Whereas their counterparts in municipal police departments tend to specialize in certain areas of crime such as breaking and entering, prostitution or domestic violence, the BC detectives say they have to be ready to handle literally anything

"That makes all the difference," said Dejong. "We're always up against something new, something more challenging. It's not the same old thing all the time."

 

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