Saturday, May 10, 2003

WKU dorm fire, death prompts review of safety

President defends campus security

By Bruce Schreiner
The Associated Press

BOWLING GREEN, Ky. - Western Kentucky University President Gary Ransdell defended campus security measures Friday while announcing a sweeping review of safety policies in the wake of a dormitory arson fire that left a freshman dead.

Police have made no arrests in the death of Katie Autry, who was found Sunday morning with third-degree burns and abrasions and puncture wounds on her neck and face after her dormitory room was deliberately set on fire. She died Wednesday, and results from an autopsy performed Thursday were pending.

Ransdell said campus administrators won't "overreact to a given circumstance," and said any changes in dorm policies would be "in the best interests" of the approximately 5,000 students living in Western's residence halls.

"Our halls are safe," he said. "They're well monitored. We have all the right protocols. Sometimes young people make choices that have very unfortunate consequences.

"But those are the kinds of things we're trying to learn about Katie, and Katie's life and who else was involved in her life," he said.

Ransdell said in an interview during a break at WKU's regularly scheduled Board of Regents meeting that he was "questioning everything today."

"Katie was a part-time student in a residence hall," he said. "I'm questioning whether it's appropriate that part-time students live in residence halls. I'm questioning our underage drinking policies in higher education in general."

Autry's whereabouts the evening of the fire has been a focal point of the police investigation. Friends have said that Autry and her roommate attended a party at a fraternity house.

Ransdell said his comments were not a reference to the reports that Autry had attended the fraternity party not long before her death.

"I'm implying that this is a very complex investigation based on what little I've been able to learn about it," he said.

Since Autry's death, an armed police officer has been posted around the clock at the nine-story dorm. In a broader move, the entrances to all residence halls have been locked, and students use their room keys to get in. Before the fire, the entrances were open during the day and locked at night.

Ransdell said he was comfortable with campus police heading the homicide investigation, assisted by federal, state and local agencies.

Before his arrival on campus in January 2000, Western Police Chief Bob Deane was a 27-year veteran with the Detroit Police Department, including 10 years in the homicide division, said university spokesman Bob Skipper.

"He's a highly qualified, seasoned police officer," Ransdell said.

Deane has been in contact with Autry's family at least twice daily to give updates on the investigation, Skipper said.

Authorities remained tight-lipped about the investigation Friday, although they have interviewed more than 100 students. Skipper said police obtained a search warrant to examine Autry's room after the fire, but he said he was unaware of any other search warrants.

The spring semester wound down Friday, the last day for final examinations. At commencement Saturday, the crowd will take a moment to remember Autry and other Western students who died in the past year.

"I'm sure it will be on the minds of many people," Ransdell said of Autry's death. "But it would be unfortunate for anything to detract from the significance of the moment" for the graduating students.

At the regents meeting Friday, Autry and her family were remembered in the opening prayer.

A memorial service for Autry was scheduled for 2 p.m. CDT Sunday at Pellville Baptist Church, with the funeral scheduled for 2 p.m. Monday at William L. Danks Funeral Home in Beaver Dam.

Visitation will be 4 to 8 p.m. today, , 6 to 8 p.m. Sunday and 9 a.m. until the funeral on Monday.

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