May 3, 2004

Arsonist Strikes Risley Hall

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An arsonist lit six to seven fires in Risley Residential College Friday night at approximately 1:04 a.m. No one was hurt, and damage was minimal.

The Ithaca Fire Department, Environmental Health and Safety and the Cornell University Police responded to the incident, and the building was evacuated, according to Simeon Moss, deputy director of Cornell News Service.

When authorities searched the building, they found evidence of more fires than had originally been suspected, and the fire alarm was pulled again.

After the second alarm, the residents were ushered into Risley Dining.

“All of us who were awake and present were told to file into the Great Hall, where we were given a talking to by the campus policeman in charge, who seemed quite overwrought (and understandably so). At first it appeared that we would not be able to leave the hall until we gave explanations for our whereabouts, but then the police allowed those on the first floor to return to our rooms — at which time I promptly fell into a very disturbed sleep,” said Gordon Sander ’73, Risley’s guest suite artist.

The two largest fires damaged a bulletin board in the western stairwell of the college and a Candyland figurine in the main hallway of the second floor. Both were caught within 15 seconds, according to Nechama Levy ’05, a Risley resident.

The IFD and CUPD are currently investigating the specifics of the incident, according to Moss. “We have no clue who did it. There are various theories. It was probably somebody who was drunk,” said J.P. Freire ’04, another resident.

Levy called the arsonist’s pattern “hard to model,” and said that the number and location of the fires suggests that the he or she may be a Risley resident, or at least someone who is familiar with the building.

Sander, however, pointed out that the doors to the building were propped open, which “clearly point in the direction of an outsider,” he said.

Others have asserted that the arson may have actually been a bias-related incident.

“We do not know that for sure. It’s a suspicion among many, but it hasn’t been determined. New graffiti was found that appears to have been written right around the same time with certain bias connotations,” said Benjamin Ortiz, Risley’s residence hall director.

He explained that the graffiti contained certain derogatory words relating to the gay community. “The bulletin board itself was on gay marriage. But, there were a whole bunch of things that had nothing to do with those issues. It was probably just some jackass walking around with a lighter. Perhaps it was anti-Candyland, or just anti-us. … Some folks don’t get what Risley’s all about. It may not have been an [incident directed towards] a particular group, but rather towards all of us,” Freire said.

The Risley community has been “very cooperative” in the investigations, according to Moss. The Risley community has also held two house meetings in the past two days to discuss the incidents. “The priority [at the meetings] was to attend to the emotional state of the building. People expressed their feelings and talked about how to increase security in the building. There was not a focus on who did it, but rather where do we go from here,” Ortiz said.

In yesterday’s meeting, the residents decided to form a task force to address security issues in the building as the community recovers from the incident.

“I think I can say on behalf of the whole school that, whether or not this stupidity was perpetrated by a Risleyite … we are all disturbed that anyone would be so hateful and reckless as to commit such heinous acts,” Sander said.

Persons with information relating to the incident are asked to contact the CUPD as soon as possible.

Archived article by Sun Staff