Fairfield University bomb scare, 10 years later
A shoebox, tin foil, and some wire. That was all that was needed to send panic through the region and destroy a university’s sense of security.
Ten years ago this month, Patrick Arbelo walked into Dr. Elizabeth Dreyer’s “Voices of Medieval Women” class in Canisius Hall, and with an apparent bomb in his hands, held the class hostage for over six hours. More than a dozen TV trucks set up satellite links on campus, news helicopters buzzed overhead, and Fairfield got a dose of unwanted worldwide publicity.
“The first experience was surprise,” said Dr. Dreyer, talking about how she felt when Arbelo came into her classroom, “The second feeling was disbelief. We were thinking ‘Is this really happening?’, because it was so out of the ordinary.”
With the help of Fairfield Police, as well as federal agencies like the FBI, all of the hostages were eventually released, and Arbelo was brought into custody shortly before 11p.m.
Since that day, there have been no incidents that have garnered nearly as much state and national attention here on campus. Police say they learned some lessons that still guide their actions today, and several questions remain.
How effectively was the last hostage situation actually handled? What could’ve been better or what could have changed? Is Fairfield ready in the event that another hostage situation occurs on campus?
“We are much better prepared for a crisis situation today than we were back in 2002,” according to Todd Pelazza, the Director of Public Safety at Fairfield University.
Despite being overall pleased with how the negations went and how the situation turned out, Pelazza did admit to some areas that could have been better handled. “First and foremost, we would’ve gotten the message out,” says Pelazza. “For example, we told our dispatchers to not give out any information. We realize today that is not the right method. You want to get the word out as soon as you can and as accurately as possible.”
The switchboard for both Public Safety and Fairfield Police were inundated and overwhelmed, according to Pelazza, which added to confusion. And as a result of the incident, Public Safety now utilizes unified command system in which streamlines communication between the different branches of authority in the event of another crisis.
Lieutenant James Perez of the Fairfield Police Department, who was on the scene back in 2002 as a member of the SWAT team, shared Pelazza’s regrets about not having a plan already in place. “The one thing I wish we had done is I wish we had a protocol in place for that type of situation,” said Perez. “We would have had the press better informed and at a distance. We also had politicians come down, and they were able to walk freely, almost within 300 feet from the bomber, and we’ve learned that’s not a good thing.”
Fairfield Police have also trained a special team for that kind of situation, said Perez, and they have a great relationship with state and federal agencies, allowing them to work more quickly in times of crisis.
However, not everyone praised police handling of the case. One long-time critic says the police over reacted in the aftermath of the Twin Towers bombing in New York, which occurred five months earlier.
“It was the most disgraceful overreaction, and Patrick Arbelo was a victim of 9/11. It was the hysteria of 9/11 which caused this,” said Dr. Donald Greenberg, a politics professor at the university who witnessed the incident. “People knew that it was Patrick in the room, and anyone who knew Patrick knew what a troubled young man he had been. He was legally blind, there was no way on God’s good earth that Patrick could’ve put together a functioning bomb, and people should’ve known that.”
“I don’t care what they say about ‘We couldn’t take any chances’ or any stuff like that, we knew who the person was,” said Greenberg. “Patrick needed to be dealt with medically, not criminally.”
Greenberg was especially unhappy with how the authorities were quick to label what Patrick had as a bomb, considering his background. “He was legally blind…he had no technical skills whatsoever, he had no science courses. If you looked at the box, which you could see through the window, you would’ve realized what a joke it was,” said Greenberg, “…he had this silly little box that no more could be a bomb than I could be Mr. America. It was just an absurdity.”
Arbelo was later found not guilty by reason of insanity of 27 counts of first-degree kidnapping and one count of possession of a dangerous weapon, according to the Mirror. A judge ordered Patrick be committed to a maximum security mental hospital, where he stayed until he was released in 2009.
Pelazza feels law enforcement was justified when they acted the way they did. “We did not know this at the time, but it was a facsimile bomb, which was in perfect working order, but did not contain any explosives. We had to act as if it was a real bomb.”
In addition to being critical of how the situation itself was handled, Dr. Greenberg attacked the administration for not handling the events that followed any better.
“They put the kid in jail, and let him rot in jail for close to two years….Our university and our president [Kelley] and our upper administration did nothing to stop that, they did nothing to interfere,” according to Greenberg. “Not only did we not act courageously, we acted in the most despicable way possible.”
“Any attempt we make to argue that we needed to do it because it was the age of terror, is somewhere between mendacity, hypocrisy, and just trying to cover yourself for behavior that you knew was despicable on your part. I think it was handled terribly.”
Dr. Dreyer was not critical of how the situation was handled, calling it “amazing”. However, she brought up another point: how many students are actually aware of this event happening 10 years ago?
“Most of our students don’t even know this happened,” said Dreyer. “I had one class where I brought it up as an example, and two out of 30 students had heard of it.”
No matter if students have heard of the Fairfield University bomb scare or not, Lt. Perez wants students and everybody associated in the community to be aware, so that it doesn’t have to be relived.
“Everyone must be security conscious…to prevent something like this from ever happening. Nothing actually happened [in 2002] but it could’ve been horrible,” says Perez. “ It is important that if students see something that is not normal, then let us know.”