Thursday, August 21, 2008

Full of Sound and Fury Signifying Nothing

Few arrested in San Diego State bust face charges
By Allison Hoffman
Associated Press Writer

Nearly four months after federal agents and campus police stormed San Diego State University's Fraternity Row in one of the nation's largest campus drug busts, fewer than half of those arrested face charges as the school tries to repair its image ahead of the upcoming academic year.

Authorities announced 128 people had been arrested, but only 77 cases were referred to the San Diego County district attorney's office, which never filed charges against eight people and dismissed charges or issued citations to another 11, bringing the total number of active charges to just 58.

Of those, the district attorney's office says 29 have pleaded guilty. Prosecutors said only those with prior convictions would be subject to long prison sentences; most will be put on probation.

A former campus community-service officer is expected to get probation when he is sentenced after pleading guilty to possessing cocaine for sale, prosecutors say. And an honors student who was accused of masterminding a cocaine trafficking operation from his fraternity house may serve only a brief sentence after his guilty plea to a single felony drug-sale charge.

"In the end, not many students got charged, so what was the point?" asked Tony Matsumoto, 30, a graduate student in environmental engineering. "Why target San Diego State? I'm sure this stuff happens in the Ivy League, too."

Officials initially praised the operation as a strike against widespread drug dealing at the 34,000-student campus. University President Stephen Weber compared it to breaking up a cartel, calling the activities uncovered by investigators "trafficking.

"Six Greek houses were suspended immediately, and 75 students were rounded up and marched into the basement of the university basketball arena for questioning. The bust involved unusual cooperation between the university and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, which traditionally takes a hands-off approach to college drug use.

In court documents, undercover agents described doing drug deals in university parking lots and alleged that members of one fraternity, Theta Chi, were laundering their profits through the chapter.

Those allegations have not been heard in court, and Theta Chi says on its Web site that a review of the chapter's books indicated no misdeeds.

The arrests included students detained by campus police for minor offenses. Some were released after providing information to investigators, while others were punished with tickets.

Damon Mosler, head of the district attorney's narcotics unit, acknowledged some of the students "got a break," but defended the results as typical for large-scale prosecutions involving multiple defendants, most without criminal histories.

"They're trying to say we wasted our time doing this. Did we? No," Mosler said. "We're just trying to wake people up."

School officials said 22 students have been expelled, and the university is adjudicating additional cases. Those expelled may still be eligible to earn degrees from other institutions.Some people on campus said they think the greatest impact may have been on the university's reputation as it tries to shed its long-standing image as one of the nation's premier party schools.

"It taints the university a little bit," said Erik Blekeberg, 23, who graduated in December and is starting a master's degree in sports psychology there this fall.

An advertising campaign launched after the bust featured prominent alumni, including San Diego's fire chief, affirming their school pride.

Only two fraternities, Theta Chi and Phi Kappa Psi, remain on suspension.

The school has adopted new restrictions on drug and alcohol use for the school year that begins after Labor Day.

Alcohol will be banned at fraternities and sororities for the first five weeks of the academic year, said Doug Case, the school's coordinator for Greek organizations. Previously, only Rush Week parties had to be alcohol-free.

Students planning to rush must complete an online quiz proving they understand the health effects of drinking or taking drugs, as well as the possible legal consequences of being caught, Case said. The new quiz includes stern warnings that students can be expelled for first-time drug violations.

"It really was only a small number of students involved, but regardless, drugs are a scourge in the community," Case said. "In the process of weeding it out, it got a lot of attention, and people may have come to the wrong conclusion that drug use is rampant here."

© 2008 The Associated Press.
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