Sunday, May 25, 2003

Dorm fire stirs memories for veteran detective

By Lori Burling
The Associated Press

BOWLING GREEN, Ky. - The violent death of a Western Kentucky University student brought back years of homicide scenes for campus police chief Robert Deane, who spent 27 years with the Detroit Police Department.

"I thought I had got away from this," Deane, 59, said in a recent interview at his office on the university campus. "I didn't realize it affected me the way it did until after I left the department."

On May 4, as students were entering finals week, 18-year-old Katie Autry, a freshman from Pellville, was pulled from her smoldering dormitory room by firefighters. She had been stabbed, beaten, raped and burned, according to court records.

She died three days later at a Tennessee hospital - nearly three years after Deane took over Western Kentucky University's police department.

"I knew we had to act quick, the whole force," Deane said. "Yes, I have worked more homicides than anyone else, but my experience is dated; I was just another tool for the investigation."

Setting an unusual precedent for state universities, Deane's 23 officers are leading the investigation, rather than Kentucky State Police, which assisted in the case. One week after the fire, officers arrested and charged two young men from nearby Scottsville with murder. Lucas Goodrum, 21, and Stephen Soules, 20, have pleaded innocent and are waiting for the case to go before a grand jury.

"We are Western Kentucky University police officers; we represent Western Kentucky. It happened on our turf," Deane said. "There was never a question as to whether we should or shouldn't handle it."

Gary Ransdell, the university president, described Deane as "a highly qualified, seasoned police officer."

Still fresh in the memory of many was another fatal dormitory fire on a western Kentucky campus. The fatality, ruled foul play, occurred when a dormitory was deliberately set on fire in 1998 at Murray State University, killing one student. State police handled the investigation in which multiple suspects were charged, but no one has been convicted.

"Who runs the investigation depends on the level of expertise of the investigators," said Daniel Carter, vice president of Security on Campus, a national nonprofit campus safety organization based in King of Prussia, Pa. "With the Western Kentucky case, all of the right agencies were involved; that's what it takes to break a case."

Deane was born and raised in Detroit. A former railroad employee, he was released from the police academy two weeks early for his first assignment with the Detroit police - the riots of 1967.

Deane started as a patrol officer, then moved to crime scene investigating for a couple of years. That gave him experience in taking note of even the smallest of details at a crime scene. Deane was one of the first officers on the scene at the dorm May 4, saying: "I wanted to know what we were dealing with."

Working crime scenes led to a decade-long career with the homicide unit. His more than 300 cases included drug-related murders, mob hits and even a serial killer.

"The work was very interesting. It gives insight on how cruel people can be to others. But it can get into your personal life, too. You become suspicious of everybody," Deane said.

Deane decided to turn in his Detroit badge in 1994 for campus policing. Deane became the police chief at University of Wisconsin-Parkside, then left in 2000 to take the position at the Bowling Green campus, dealing often with robbery or alcohol-related crimes.

During his time in Wisconsin, Deane fought for the right for his less than a dozen officers to carry weapons. School policy mandated that the weapon be locked in the truck of the officer's car.

"They know how to carry and operate a weapon," said Deane, who added that campus officers at Wisconsin and Western Kentucky are trained at the same academy as state police.

Deane's request was granted in 1998. Western Kentucky police officers already were carrying weapons when Deane arrived.

Deane says the dorm fire has been the most high-profile of all his cases. "I felt like the eyes of the entire world were on me."

Deane also works for the Crime Investigation Division of the Army Reserves. He earned a degree from Wayne State University and a master's from the University of Detroit.

"I'm not going anywhere; I'm what you call a lifelong learner. I love education and I can learn and practice law enforcement here," Deane said.

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