Sunday, December 17, 2006

Christmas Tree Theft Becomes Expensive Lesson

Fraternity punished in theft of tree
WPI takes action, Fiji willing to pay
By Milton J. Valencia
WORCESTER- Worcester Polytechnic Institute has taken disciplinary action against members of a fraternity for the theft of a valuable Christmas tree from a private condominium complex, in a holiday story that brought about community uproar and embarrassment.
Philip Clay, WPI’s dean of students, said in a statement released yesterday that the university completed a student judicial review and that the local chapter of the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity admitted full responsibility for the theft.
The head of the condominium association has praised the university and the fraternity for taking responsibility, but added that the association is looking for the replacement of the tree soon. want to move beyond this,” said Alan Gordon, from the Moreland Hill Townhouses association.
On Thursday, the university issued several sanctions against fraternity members, including 15 hours of community service for each member, for a total of 720 hours. The fraternity must also revise its new member program, create a budget for the purchase of future holiday decorations, and each member must participate in a Values Workshop. In addition, letters of apology must be sent to all affected officials, including WPI administrators, the university’s interfraternity council, campus police and the Worcester Police Department.
The fraternity had already written a letter to the condominium association, accepting responsibility and apologizing for the harm to the community. The group also promised to pay $7,000 in restitution for the tree and to commit to community service by cleaning up Farber Field, which is next to the condominium complex. The cleanup of the field is in addition to the new school sanctions of community service.
The tree has been brought to Friendly House, a social service agency, for decoration. The university community, including several green organizations, had already donated gifts to area children, who were allowed to decorate the tree. Payment for the tree must still be made, but the university and the fraternity have embarked on a public relations campaign since the incident.
“As a longstanding organization within Worcester Polytechnic Institute, we have embarrassed the school, community, fraternity system, and most of all, ourselves,” Brent Shannon, the fraternity president, said in a statement. “Decision making is not something you learn overnight, and we embrace this as a way to learn from our mistakes.”
The theft of the Christmas tree last week was seen as a challenge for the fraternity’s new pledges. They were told by members to decorate the fraternity house at 99 Salisbury St., and members apparently decided to cut the tree down from the Moreland Hill Townhouses, off Wrentham Road.
The blue spruce tree, estimated to be 35 to 40 feet high, was in the center of the cozy condominium complex. The theft of the massive tree surprised the close-knit community, particularly considering it was taken in the dead of night. All that remained the next day was a 2-foot stump.
The theft became the subject of newspaper articles, considering the nature of the theft, the holiday season and the estimated value of the tree at more than $2,000. A Telegram & Gazette reader raised suspicions when she called to point out that a large tree had been placed on the balcony of the fraternity house. A member of the house denied that the tree was the one that had been stolen from the condominium property, but the head of the condo association later identified it.
A police report was filed, and detectives interviewed several members of the fraternity. Eventually, the fraternity admitted responsibility.
Mr. Gordon has praised the fraternity for taking responsibility. But he has also stressed that the condominium association expects restitution soon, saying estimates for the replacement of the tree, as well as the removal of the stump, are more than $7,000.
The fraternity announced Wednesday it would reimburse the association for the loss, but no payment has been made. Police continue to handle the investigation, and at one point said criminal charges could be filed unless a civil resolution is made.
Copyright Worcester Telegram & Gazette Corp.