MG RU Tartan 102919 (copy)

The Radford Univeristy student newspaper, The Tartan, is distributed in racks around campus, like this one (at left) in Radford University’s Hurlburt Student Center. An investigation into the mass disappearance of copies of the Sept. 18 edition of The Tartan found a low-level university employee removed papers from four of the 22 racks that were mysteriously emptied. But the probe leaves more questions than answers. Why were the papers removed? Who emptied the other 18 racks? And why?

— Photo by Matt Gentry, The Roanoke Times

A newsworthy theft occurred at Radford University seven weeks ago — and no pun is intended. Hundreds of copies of The Tartan, Radford’s student newspaper, mysteriously vanished from 22 of 32 campus news racks the night of Sept. 18 or the following morning.

The case of the purloined papers prompted coverage by The Roanoke Times; the Washington Post; The Tartan; The (Charlottesville) Daily Progress, the Washington Examiner, the Student Press Law Center and maybe some other publications, too.

Naturally, it’s also prompted a lot of questions. Who stole the papers? Why? Did that issue contain patently offensive material?

Only the latter question has been fully answered, according to an administrator’s email obtained by this newspaper. We’ll get to that in a minute.

For seven weeks, the crackerjack, 36-employee Radford University Police Department investigated. Friday, the public got a partial answer as to the whodunit: A “classified” (or low-level) campus employee was the perp who pinched student newspapers from four news racks.

Campus cops determined there was no crime because the newspapers were free, according to a letter from Radford University Police Chief David Underwood to The Tartan’s editor-in-chief, Dylan Lepore. That letter also called the probe “an administrative review” to determine whether the theft breached any university conduct or employment guidelines.

The review found the employee, whose identity was not released, violated guidelines, Underwood wrote, and he or she has been disciplined.

It closed by noting the police department “will make no further comment on this matter since it is considered a Radford University personnel issue, which is not subject to public disclosure.”

Allow me to clarify that final thought-nugget: Nothing — not one word, syllable or punctuation mark — in any state or federal law bars Radford University from releasing more information about the theft of those papers.

Instead, the loophole-ridden Virginia Freedom of Information Act allows the university to withhold the information. That law also gives administrators the option of releasing it. Apparently, they would rather not.

That’s unfortunate, because Underwood’s letter has gaps wide enough to drive a tractor-trailer load of newsprint through.

For example:

Who stole the papers from the other 18 racks? Are police continuing the investigation? Where did the purloined papers end up? Was more than one university employee involved?

“RUPD will make no further comment on this matter since it is considered a Radford University personnel issue, which is not subject to public disclosure.”

Why were the papers stolen? Because motive is the kind of thing police are usually curious about, we shouldn’t assume Radford investigators didn’t pop that question sometime during the seven-week-long probe. But there is no answer.

“RUPD will make no further comment on this matter since it is considered a Radford University personnel issue, which is not subject to public disclosure.”

By failing to answer those five questions, and probably a few more, Underwood has created an information vacuum. Inevitably, that invites speculation. And such speculation has the potential to damage Radford University’s reputation.

One thing we know — no thanks to university police — is that at least one high-ranking university administrator reacted unfavorably to a photo that appeared on the front page of the stolen newspaper in question.

The picture was of Steve Tibbets, a new professor at Radford who died unexpectedly days after the fall semester launched. In it, Tibbetts was standing with his daughter in front of a street sign that bore their surname. That sign also noted the street was a “dead end.”

The photo was submitted to the paper by Tibbetts’ widow, who presumably didn’t consider it offensive.

But Matthew Smith, interim dean of Radford’s College of Humanities and Behavioral Sciences, did. In an email to Susan Trageser, Radford’s vice president of student affairs, Smith wrote: “I just got a paper copy of the Tartan and am outraged by what I see on the front page. As someone who has worked with student papers, journalism, and media throughout my career, this is the singularly most insensitive editorial choice I’ve witnessed in 30 years.”

After the paper’s theft, my Roanoke Times colleague Sam Wall obtained that email pursuant to a Virginia Freedom of Information Act request.

Smith’s three decades working with student journalists and the media must have been quite sheltered. I’ve seen way more insensitive things in my 35-year career. That photo wouldn’t even make the top 50 most insensitive “editorial choices.” Heck, The National Enquirer probably has about five per issue.

Monday, I attempted to contact Underwood regarding all the questions left unanswered by his letter. His secretary referred me to Radford’s University Relations Department. They referred me to Caitlyn Scaggs, associate vice president for university relations.

At her request, I emailed six questions. She responded by sending me a copy of Underwood’s letter and an email that began: “The Radford University Police Department (RUPD) has completed its initial investigation and subsequent review of the missing newspapers as reported by The Tartan in mid-September. This review has concluded.”

That email answered none of the questions.

Was it a coincidence that copies of The Tartan disappeared the same day a high-ranking administrator expressed outrage about a photo on that issue’s front page?

“RUPD will make no further comment on this matter since it is considered a Radford University personnel issue, which is not subject to public disclosure.”

Did the disciplined employee act on his (or her) own to remove those papers? Surely, the Radford police asked that question. Any cop with half a brain would.

Scaggs did answer that question in a later email, after I pointed out she hadn’t answered any of the questions in the earlier one.

“During the course of the review, the employee disclosed to acting alone and not under the direction of any other individuals,” she wrote. I reckon I should be happy with one out of six.

However: If you believe an hourly Radford employee took it upon himself to remove papers from those four news racks, please give me a call. I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.

It sounds like — with respect to the missing papers — Radford University’s administration has zipped up tighter than a scuba driver’s wet suit. Or perhaps they’re too busy doing more important things, like erecting some stone walls.

That leaves us with yet another question: Why?

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Dan Casey knows a little bit about a lot of things but not a heck of a lot about most things. That doesn't keep him from writing about them, however. So keep him honest!

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