Nearly two years later, secrecy veils case of UP student Kate Johnson
It is one of the most shocking, mystifying killings in recent Portland history.
The victim: a 21-year-old student at a Catholic university, sexually assaulted, badly beaten and brutally slain. The crime scene: a locked room inside a virtually empty dormitory with supposedly limited access.
Twenty-one months later, the killing of Catherine 'Kate' Johnson at the University of Portland remains unsolved, and police and university officials have been largely silent about the crime and investigation. They say they have no suspects.
Shortly after the May 2001 killing of the Vancouver, Wash., woman, both the police and the university made a point of reassuring the public. 'We don't have any indication that this is a multiple offender, somebody likely to re-offend, nothing like that at all,' said Greg Clark, commander of the Portland Police Bureau's North Precinct, in June 2001.
That same month, university Vice President David Goldrick said he didn't see the campus as less secure. 'We don't believe there's any reason to fear,' he said.
But the killer's profile, released by police in December 2001, is similar to that of known serial killers.
Police have been unable to link this case to others, and the university has publicized changes to its security system that have resulted in a campus that looks relaxed and safe.
But questions about security and secrecy remain. How did the killer get into a supposedly secure dormitory? Why are the police, the university, other students and even Johnson's parents not talking about her death?
How do you convey the uniqueness of a young woman who has been murdered? They're all beautiful. They all have stolen futures, shattered families.
But there's no doubt that Kate Johnson was special.
When she was 5, she asked her parents when the family was going to go to church.
Edith 'Edie' and Russell Johnson were not churchgoers, so they were surprised by their only daughter's request. But it was in keeping with the person she became: a devout Christian who, her mother said, added a promise ring to her baptismal-cross necklace to show 'her commitment to save her virginity for her husband.'
To her mother's knowledge, she never even had a real boyfriend.
Kate Johnson could never afford Birkenstocks, but she always wore comfortable clothes. She drove a Honda. She loved Mexican food; her big black Labrador, Moose; and the University of Portland, run by the Holy Cross order of the Roman Catholic Church, where she was a senior in music education.
'She fell head over heels in love with it,' her mother, who did not respond to requests for an interview for this story, said during a December 2001 news conference. 'She blossomed as a human being at that institution.'
Johnson loved music and playing the clarinet. 'When I was studying, I would always hear her playing her music,' her friend Kim Vu told a reporter for the UP newspaper, The Beacon.
Vu, who had known Johnson since fourth grade in Vancouver, was her dorm neighbor at the university, with only a wall between their back-to-back desks. 'Her room was always filled with music,' Vu said. 'I knew she would be the perfect music teacher.'
Johnson also did volunteer work Ñ especially with children Ñ throughout her three years at the university. 'I volunteer because I love to do it,' she told Tracy Petersen, another friend quoted in the Beacon, six weeks before being killed. 'I can't explain why. Obviously, there is something I am getting out of it, so it's for completely, totally selfish reasons sometimes that I volunteer.'
In 2001, Johnson's commitment to volunteerism resulted in a part-time summer job with the university's Volunteer Services program. She also was one of two women selected as summer resident managers in Mehling Hall, the brick, eight-story dormitory located above the Willamette River near the northwest corner of campus.
As it is each year after the spring term ends in mid-May, the all-women dormitory, which houses 375 people during the school year, was virtually empty: The only residents were two women and the priest who had been the dorm's pastoral counselor during the previous school year.
A horrifying discovery
On Sunday, May 27, 2001, Johnson and other residence hall managers met for dinner at the University Commons, which, like Mehling, is on the campus's west side. No one is known to have seen her Monday at the Volunteer Services office or the commons.
On Tuesday morning, with a group of conference attendees due to be housed at Mehling at 4 p.m. and still no sign of Johnson, an alarmed fellow student, whose name has not been released, went looking for her. The student found Johnson's room locked and called campus security.
Johnson's body was found in her room shortly before noon.
Two days later, Dr. Nikolas Hartshorne, a Multnomah County deputy medical examiner, issued a short, confidential memo to his staff: 'The family has been notified that (Kate) died from manual strangulation and that she was sexually assaulted (nonspecific) nature.'
The memo, which apparently was inadvertently faxed to The (Vancouver) Columbian newspaper, ended with this terse statement: 'We will not go into the specifics of the case with the family and absolutely no information to the media.'
With rare exceptions, no information has been provided.
'I can tell you we don't know who the killer is,' says Cmdr. Jim Ferraris, who has supervised the Portland Police Bureau's detective division since February 2002. 'How he got into the dorm would be too specific. The manner of death, etc., is off the table, because it would compromise the investigation.'
Ferraris and his detectives say the bureau has done what it could, including having criminalists spend five days 'processing' the crime scene.
'We got on the roof and walked every part of the roof, got on the stairwell, walked to every end of the building,' lead Detective Jon Rhodes said in December 2001. 'We inspected every room, bathroom, closet, under every mattress in that building. É We did everything current technology allows us to do to process that scene.'
Ferraris is a strong Ñ and articulate Ñ proponent of the philosophy of limiting disclosure of information about homicides, even to a victim's family. It is a philosophy shared by many, if not most, law enforcement agencies.
'I know there's a lot of questions about the crime scene (in Mehling Hall), how Kate died, what the killer did,' he says. '(But) in every case, there is information that only the killer knows. We can't put that out.'
In August 2001, the bureau did confirm that some university employees were asked to provide DNA samples, although police have never said they have DNA from the crime scene.
Ferraris also said this week that the police 'may or may not have fingerprints of the suspect,' meaning that they have not found a match at this time.
Johnson's paternal aunt, Colette Thompson, who lives in Folsom, Calif., is not happy with such limitations on information. 'I'm angry at the police,' she says. 'I'm angry at the Catholic Church. We don't know anything. They (the police) won't give us anything.'
During a December 2001 news conference, Kate's father, Russell, said: 'We have no idea how this could happen in a place we thought was so safe. É The futility about it is numbing. It is the lack of information. É We are solely dependent on the Portland Police Bureau at this time.'
Russell Johnson, who was separated from Edie Johnson before their daughter's death, did not respond to requests for an interview.
There is one thing that Ferraris doesn't mind seeing publicized: a profile of Johnson's killer.
The killer, police say, is a man who can be engaging, even entertaining at times, but who has superficial relationships, few friends and wants to control others. His experiences with women are negative and volatile. He treats them in demeaning and subordinate ways, wants to dominate them and even hates them. He will show lack of empathy for other crime victims, will be following news coverage of Johnson's murder and may suggest to listeners that her death was somehow her fault.
'If you know somebody who fits that profile,' Ferraris says, 'call us.'
The killer has, police made chillingly clear, a personality similar to Theodore 'Ted' Bundy, the serial killer whose modus operandi included attacks on women in college dormitories. Bundy was executed in 1989. Portland police have not, to date, been able to link Johnson's killing with any other crimes.
'A disconcerting place to live'
Eight-story Mehling Hall is unique among buildings on the university campus because it is both its tallest building and its only all-female dormitory.
'An eight-story female dorm Ñ that in itself attracts strange individuals,' says John Garner, who was head of the university's public safety department for 22 years. He says these have included peeping Toms and men looking for women they had met at parties or bars, as well as 'guys just looking to meet girls' in general.
'There was a verbal policy to never put small numbers of female students in Mehling Hall between sessions,' says a source close to the university's administration who declined to be identified for publication. 'All the other dorms are three-story. Mehling Hall would be a disconcerting place to live if you were just one of two females in the dorm.'
But university spokeswoman Kathleen Campbell says no such policy ever existed, and Garner says he never heard such a policy even being discussed.
According to Garner, women were building managers at the university during his entire 22-year tenure there. 'I can't recall a time when a female building manager ever stated that she felt unsafe,' he says.
Campbell says the university now clusters its summer resident-hall staff together during periods when conference groups and summer camps are not occupying the facilities.
Colette Thompson says the Johnson family was unaware that Kate's position as resident manager might pose any potential danger.
'You send your daughter to a Catholic college, thinking she'd be OK,' Thompson says bitterly. 'She's given a summer job in administration. Then we find out she's kind of a night watchman, (supposed) to check her dorm every night. No one told her parents that.'
The dorm also had a documented history of security problems, including three burglaries in March 2001.
'There were some burglaries in Mehling Hall right after I left,' Garner says of break-ins that occurred between March 19 and March 21, 2001. 'Rooms entered into. Thefts in dorm rooms happen, (but) burglaries didn't happen that much. When Mehling had a little rash, that's a dangerous sign.
'People thought that a master key might have been used. That meant somebody needed to do something there. I heard re-keying was done, but was it really done? Did old keys still work?'
Like other dorms at the university, Mehling can be entered through its main door via a plastic key card, similar to those used instead of metal keys by many motels. It has numerous other exterior and interior doors Ñ including those to individual dorm rooms Ñ that are opened with conventional keys.
Residents and various groups of university employees were issued key cards to Mehling by the physical plant department. Besides key cards, which served as identification cards, students had conventional keys to their own rooms.
There also were conventional master and submaster keys, depending on the combination of doors they could open and in which buildings.
The same physical plant computer that activated and deactivated the key cards also kept a record of which key cards were tried at Mehling's front door Ñ both successfully and unsuccessfully Ñ and at what times. The university provided a copy of this record to the police.
One could assume, since no arrest has been made, that police have been unable to positively match a name from this record with a person from whom DNA was obtained.
That doesn't, however, rule out a killer who entered by key card and was not asked for Ñ or didn't provide Ñ DNA, or who used a stolen, borrowed or lost card that appeared on the record under its owner's name.
Building was re-keyed
Garner, who left the university in mid-March 2001, says he frequently complained to the university's administration about inadequate key control.
'I really had no control over the keys the physical plant had,' says Garner, who is now director of safety and security at Linfield College in McMinnville. 'A lot of physical plant people had masters, and I didn't agree with that. If keys were lost there, I didn't hear about it unless someone ratted someone out.'
University spokeswoman Campbell told the Tribune that Mehling was re-keyed on March 29, 2001, about 10 days after the burglaries and two months before Johnson was killed.
So how did the killer get into the building, if not with a key card or key? There are obvious answers: Johnson or someone else let him in, he followed her in, or someone left a door propped open. But a physical plant employee who asked not to be identified pointed out another possibility.
On the east side of Mehling, there are two open stairwell fire escapes, each of which has a metal ladder that extends from the roof to within safe jumping distance of the ground. Near each stairwell is a heavy vertical pipe, which has a semihorizontal fitting at the bottom, near ground level.
If a person stood on the pipe fitting and then shimmied up the standpipe approximately 12 feet, he could reach the ladder and climb to the second-floor door, which is the first stairwell door that can be entered from the outside. 'You can climb the standpipes in a heartbeat,' says the physical plant employee. 'If you look at 'em, you'll see footprints.'
Johnson was, according to the university, the only resident on the second floor of Mehling Hall at the time she was killed. Her room was on the east side of the dormitory, centered between the two stairwells.
But the stairwell door theory only works if someone has Ñ accidentally or deliberately Ñ left that door unlocked from the inside. And Edie Johnson said her daughter was not likely to have done either.
'Kate was known for following the rules,' Edie Johnson said in a prepared statement for her daughter's memorial service. In fact, she said, 'I wouldn't doubt that following the rules had something to do with her death.'
If Portland police know how Johnson's killer got into Mehling, they aren't saying.
Priest was not mentioned
Three issues have caused discussion about the police's and the university's handling of the investigation:
• The university did not reveal that a priest was living in Mehling Hall at the time of the murder.
• University officials did not tell Johnson's parents about the March 2001 burglaries.
• Police didn't contact Garner until 18 months after the homicide.
UP Vice President Goldrick, who repeatedly told the media that Johnson and another female student were Mehling's only residents at the time of the slaying, subsequently explained that he initially had been informed that the priest, David Adaikalam, had moved out the day before Johnson's death.
According to Thompson, Johnson's aunt, even the young woman's family has not been told whether she died on Sunday, May 27, the day she last was seen; May 28; or May 29, when her body was found.
Goldrick said that when he learned the priest actually had not left until 4:45 a.m. on May 29 to catch a flight out of the country, he decided against releasing the information 'to shield the priest from the media and protect him from Kate's killer.'
Adaikalam told the Tribune that he was questioned by police and fingerprinted, and he submitted a DNA sample when he returned to campus in late June 2001. In December 2001, Rhodes told the Tribune that Adaikalam, who no longer is at the university, had been 'eliminated as a suspect.'
Then, last May, a story about the March 2001 Mehling burglaries ran in Willamette Week.
These burglaries, in which three resident rooms were entered and textbooks, jewelry and other items taken, were potentially relevant to the murder investigation for two reasons. First, they occurred during spring break, when Mehling was empty or virtually empty, just as it was at the time of the homicide. Second, as with Johnson's slaying, there was no sign of forced entry.
The university and the police both declined to say when, or from whom, the police learned of the burglaries. However, according to internal police routing slips, Detective Rhodes did not obtain copies of the reports until July 16, more than a month after Johnson's death and potentially too late to trace the stolen property.
The burglary reports, copies of which were obtained by Willamette Week from the police via a public records request, have since been sealed by the bureau as relating to the murder investigation.
Willamette Week reported that Russell Johnson was 'stunned' when he learned about the burglaries shortly before the paper's May 2002 story. 'I didn't get that information,' he said. The university 'didn't tell me any of that,' he said.
Finally, former security head Garner says he was not contacted by police, or asked for a DNA sample, until November 2002. Neither the university nor the police would say when, or from whom, police got Garner's name.
Although Garner officially left UP in mid-March 2001, he had, he says, a verbal contract to continue to be available for consultation until the end of May 2001. (Garner says he has no personal knowledge of the crime scene. His successor, Harold Burke-Sivers, started June 1, several days after Johnson's slaying.) In addition, Garner had 22 years of knowledge about security at the university. 'I still had keys,' he says.
Campbell says that everything the university did was directed at 'doing what the police asked us to do: to not compromise the integrity of the investigation.'
'Our main concern was getting the case solved,' says Campbell, who had been in her position as the university's director of public relations for eight months when the killing occurred. 'I think that we did fine,' she says. 'It was a difficult situation at best.'
Presidential gag order?
Numerous rumors have circulated around campus, including that the killer defiled Johnson's body and that he attempted to clean up the crime scene using cleaning supplies from Mehling. Ferraris flatly denies that either rumor is true.
In addition, the investigation has caused conflict among the university's faculty and students.
On Aug. 21, 2001, after a police request for DNA from university employees apparently was leaked to the media by someone at the university, President David Tyson fired off an e-mail to its faculty, staff and students.
'It is É very clear to me that a few, who claim membership in the (campus) community, have chosen to take action that could very well compromise the investigation into Kate's murder,' he wrote. 'As president of the university, I am committed to the solution of the most egregious act of violence in this university's history. Therefore, given recent events, it is necessary for me to state the following:
'Any employee who is determined by the university and/or law enforcement agencies to have jeopardized the conduct of the investigation will be subject to immediate termination.'
Tyson also said that any student found to have jeopardized the investigation would be 'subject to separation from the university, not to exclude permanent dismissal.'
Jim Moore, a former professor of political science at the university who had decided to resign before the killing, calls Tyson's e-mail a gag order.
'It could have been a cover-up,' Moore says. 'It could also simply have been an overreaction. But there were enough questions out there, rather than answers, that it certainly raised cover-up questions, regardless of the reasons for it. It was a very poor move from the point of faculty, staff and student morale, and a poor move in terms of helping the police.
'I think if there had been a different president, the university would have handled it differently,' he says. 'The gag order is to me, as someone who used to work there, frankly the most frightening thing that came out of the murder.'
But not all faculty members share Moore's opinion.
'I honestly felt like you all (the media) gave them a hatchet job,' says Mark Setzler, who also was a professor of political science at the time of the killing. 'My sense was, there was a homicide investigation taking place. Frankly, I think there was a lot of pressure for the story and not a lot of concern, by the media, for the family.'
Campbell reiterates Setzler's defense of Tyson's e-mail.
'The reputation, supposedly, of the university is that it was creating a shroud of secrecy. We weren't,' she says. 'We were doing everything possible to cooperate with the police. Our concern was solving this case. I hope it's solved tomorrow. We all do.'
Goldrick eventually told faculty, staff and students that they could talk to reporters, but few do. None of the victims of the March 2001 burglaries in Mehling Hall returned the Tribune's calls.
And a current resident of the dormitory, asked to confirm the location of Johnson's room, responded: 'You need to contact Public Relations to find out this information. Reporters are not supposed to contact students. Now that you know that, I hope you will follow protocol.'
Students aren't afraid
Casey White, editor of The Beacon student newspaper, confirms that there still is an air of secrecy on campus about Johnson's death. 'People ask me if I know anything,' she says. 'I've gone around and asked people, like Goldrick and Burke-Sivers. They always say, 'We don't know any more; when we do, we'll let the campus community know.' '
But if secrecy is still an issue, security no longer appears to be.
'Students aren't at all fearful,' says White, whose newspaper office abuts the Volunteer Services office where Johnson used to work.
The effect of security measures undertaken by the university after Johnson's murder Ñ including another re-keying of Mehling, more patrols and a new, written key policy Ñ are evident in both direct and indirect ways. Physical plant workers are reassuringly close by; campus security vehicles make discreet passes every few minutes.
Female students jog Ñ in relaxed, conversational groups of two or three Ñ along North Willamette Boulevard on the edge of campus. They walk alone across the broad expanses of green that separate the university's handsome architectural mix of brick buildings.
Johnson's parents have not spoken publicly about her murder since the December 2001 news conference.
Colette Thompson says her brother and his wife are 'still horrified.'
'They're not in a psychological state of mind, still, to talk to the press,' she says. 'They think, 'I don't want to sensationalize my daughter.' But I want someone to pay attention. I want somebody to do something. I'm tired of waiting.
'I'm tired of being hushed up by the police and the Catholic Church,' she says. 'How long do we hush this up? Until this happens to another little girl?
'They (her parents) don't want to exploit the murder like a tabloid. They don't want that to happen to her memory, because she was so sweet. I'm through being quiet.'