The Dorm From Hell
Prathap Rajamani had been looking forward to this day. The chemical he'd ordered online had just arrived.
Chloroform, a colorless liquid with a slightly sweet taste, is used today to produce Freon. But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was used as an anesthetic. That fit Rajamani's plans perfectly.
Rajamani, a native of India, was a 22-year-old graduate student majoring in software engineering at the University of Texas at Dallas. He'd arrived at the school in August 2004 and lived in UTD's Waterview Park, a sprawling complex of more than 1,200 apartments and the largest private dormitory in Texas. Now, on the evening of November 18, he planned to meet with another UTD student we'll call Amy. She and Rajamani shared two classes, and Amy considered him a friend. She'd invited Rajamani to her Waterview apartment to study that night.
He had other intentions.
The two began studying in Amy's living room. Some time after 5 p.m., Amy went to check on clothes she was washing. While she was gone, Rajamani pulled out a bottle of chloroform he'd hidden in his pocket and poured it on a white handkerchief. When Amy returned and sat down on the sofa, Rajamani grabbed her and squeezed the handkerchief against her nose and mouth. She fought hard, but Rajamani held the cloth tight for about 10 seconds even as it became soaked with Amy's blood. She slipped into unconsciousness.
Rajamani opened Amy's shirt and pants and had sex with her.
She remained unconscious for 10 to 15 minutes. Later, she fled the apartment located in what is known as phase 2 of Waterview Park. At a nearby pay phone, Amy called 911. At about 6:20 p.m., two detectives, an officer and a sergeant with the UTD Police Department, arrived and spoke to her. Then an ambulance took Amy to Parkland hospital.
Shortly after 7 p.m., Detectives Steve Finney and Chris Dickson knocked on the door of Rajamani's apartment. They asked about Amy. Rajamani admitted he'd drugged her with chloroform, then had sex with her. One detective read Rajamani his Miranda rights; then Rajamani led the detectives to the trash bin where he'd thrown the bottle of chloroform and the blood-soiled handkerchief. Rajamani had one comment: "He asked if she was OK."
Finney took Rajamani to the Richardson City Jail, then wrote an affidavit from which this account is taken. Rajamani, meanwhile, posted a $50,000 bond and was out of jail within 24 hours.
News of the assault would have been chilling to the extreme for any young woman living in the huge Waterview complex, which offered little in the way of security. But contrary to the practices of many universities in Texas and around the country, UTD did not issue a crime alert informing students about Rajamani or the sexual assault to which he'd confessed.
UTD Police Chief Colleen Ridge said there was no need. "Since he was taken into immediate custody, he's not a threat," she said in an interview.
After bonding out of jail, Rajamani promptly returned to his third-floor apartment in phase 4 of Waterview. He recently told the Dallas Observer that UTD officials allowed him to stay there until the semester ended in December. Asked if this was correct, UTD officials declined to comment.
In January, a Dallas County grand jury indicted Rajamani on one count of aggravated sexual assault. The "deadly weapon," according to the indictment, was chloroform. If convicted, he could face life in prison.
UTD officials told the Observer that Rajamani no longer lives at Waterview. "He is not [a student], nor does he live on campus," Detective Finney said in an interview in late March.
That same day, however, two Observer reporters spoke with Rajamani--at Waterview.
He was smoking a cigarette while sitting on the third-floor balcony of what had been his apartment. He readily agreed to talk. In a subsequent interview, Rajamani was reluctant to discuss what happened on November 18 but acknowledged he'd confessed to having drugged and raped Amy. Rajamani said he confessed because he didn't understand his legal rights and because he believed it would help the doctors treating Amy. "I thought she was going to die," he said.
Rajamani said he now attends Tarleton State University in Stephenville. He said he returned to Waterview during spring break and stayed in his former apartment for a few days, though UTD officials had told him he was prohibited from returning to campus. He also said UTD officials made the right decision in not issuing a crime alert after arresting him. "The incident was between me and my friend," he said. "I didn't do offense to someone I didn't know."
Rajamani's former neighbors at Waterview don't see it that way. They had no idea he'd confessed to drugging and raping a fellow student. UTD officials should have told them, they say.
"It makes me angry," says Lakshmi Srinath, a software engineer at Nortel who lives one floor below Rajamani's former apartment. "They should have informed us."
Sandya Narasimhaprasad, Srinath's wife, shuddered when told about Rajamani. A graduate student at UTD majoring in computer engineering, she is eight months pregnant. "It's very scary," she says. "The same thing could have happened to me."
What happened in the case of Amy, Rajamani and UTD isn't unique. During the past three years, police records show, 10 students told police they were sexually assaulted at Waterview. By comparison, five students were sexually assaulted between 2001 and 2003 at dormitories at the University of North Texas in Denton--which house almost twice as many students as Waterview. During those same years, six students said they were the victims of aggravated assaults at Waterview. At UNT's dorms, the figure was zero.
Several students interviewed by the Observer said they don't feel safe at Waterview. And many residents said living conditions at Waterview are deplorable--ceilings that leak, toilets that don't work for weeks, black mold that management ignores, as well as inadequate security and poor maintenance. Requests for repairs, in fact, are considered a bit of a joke at Waterview: A response can take weeks, or never take place at all. Conditions are so bad that the UTD Student Government Association sponsors a Web site where hundreds of complaints about Waterview have been posted. Its name: waterviewsux.com.
One student complained in March of an invasion by thousands of fire ants. There were so many ants coming from the window, the student wrote, "that at first we thought it was raining and then found out it was ants hitting the ground. The fire ants were all over the carpet, probably between 4,000 and 6,000 ants."
The previous month a student reported standing in the rain for a half-hour while waiting for a broken fire alarm to be turned off. False alarms occur so frequently, the student said, that "if the alarm went off for real, most of the people in the building would ignore it. Apparently UTD is big on burning its students alive."
The public and private officials who put together the real estate deal that resulted in Waterview dismiss student concerns. "It has worked well for us, and the [UTD] administration has been very happy," says Robert L. Lovitt, UTD's senior vice president over business affairs.
And why not? As a business deal, Waterview is a blockbuster. According to the contractor, it cost $43.7 million to build. The initial owners were a group of private partnerships whose identities UTD declined to disclose. But Robert K. Utley III, a Dallas developer, freely acknowledges that his immediate family was behind the partnerships and that he had the controlling interest. And, says Utley, their return on the first 696 apartments alone was better than expected. "Over the term of the investment we made $10 million--clear," he says. "As a friend of mine said, 'Box-rattling money, stuff you can hear.'"
Utley's company, Dallas-based FirstWorthing, continues to manage Waterview for the school. But in 2002, the family sold its ownership interest in the 696 apartments to a foundation headed by Utley's wife, Ann. The Utley Foundation will channel all rent revenue to UTD, Utley says. Over the next 25 years, that should provide the university with more than $50 million, plus, at the end, full title to the property.
"It's a great deal," Utley says.
Not for everyone. Many among the more than 3,000 students who live in Waterview say all they get is substandard housing. "It's absolutely horrible here," says Adrian Tillery, a 24-year-old senior majoring in public administration. "We have a saying in Waterview: It's everything bad about living in a college dorm and nothing good about living in your own apartment."
With almost 4,000 beds, it certainly is big. Built in nine phases over 16 years, the complex forms a hard C with two large parking lots in the middle. In each phase are several three-story buildings. All are identical: The exterior walls are tan-colored brick interspersed with pale yellow stucco. On the inside of the buildings are concrete breezeways, some dimly lit because of broken lights, many strewn with trash. A 4-foot-high wrought-iron fence encircles much of the complex. There are no security gates.
Even Utley admits he's been concerned about security at Waterview. UTD police patrols, he says, have been inadequate. He also acknowledges that maintenance response time has been a problem virtually every year since the first tenants moved into Waterview in 1989. "Out of all our properties, they are the worst," he says. That's saying a lot, considering that Utley's company has developed tens of thousands of apartments valued at more than $4 billion. He blames UTD for refusing to increase rents.
All in all, though, Utley believes Waterview has been a boon for everyone involved. "It is an extremely successful story about public-private partnership," he says.
UTD students have no on-campus housing alternative, nor should they expect one, school officials say. Utley says the complex should continue to house UTD students for the next 40 years.
Robert L. Lovitt, who's overseen Waterview since the first brick was laid, echoes Utley's views. Waterview, he says, is "one of the best success stories in the United States."
Try telling that to Ashley Anderson. When she lived at Waterview, she worried about becoming a crime victim. "There was no security system, and I was concerned for my safety," she says.
The shabby living conditions were just as troubling. Anderson says Waterview made her sick--literally. Shortly after she moved there in the fall of 2003, she found black mold growing in her apartment. At the time, she didn't want to move. After all, she was living in a ground-floor apartment in phase 8, one of the newest sections (completed in 2002) that many residents say is the nicest. In addition, UTD provided Anderson with an apartment rent-free in exchange for her work as a peer adviser, helping students adjust to Waterview.
Anderson says she complained to management about the black mold numerous times over several weeks, but nothing was done. Meanwhile, the mold was spreading and making her ill. "They wouldn't come in and fix it," says Anderson, now a 20-year-old junior. Frustrated, she contacted her family attorney. It was only after the lawyer called management that Waterview moved Anderson to another apartment in a different phase. Conditions there, however, were just as bad. Anderson grew disillusioned as her maintenance requests were continually ignored. "I didn't want to live in a place where they didn't listen to the residents," she says.
Anderson's isn't an isolated case. The Observer interviewed more than two dozen current and former residents of Waterview. A few had no complaints, but others cited a long list of problems: toilets, showers, stoves, refrigerators and smoke detectors that don't work; ceilings that leak; parking lots and breezeways with poor lighting; trash bins that overflow and apartments infested with roaches and black mold.
"One night, the entire kitchen cabinet fell to the floor, breaking most of my dishes," recalls Leif Hurst, who lived in Waterview for two years before graduating with a degree in economics and finance.
Hurst said that soon after moving into Waterview, his allergies turned his life into a nightmare. When he began getting nosebleeds, his doctor suggested having a licensed home inspector examine his apartment. The inspector found that the problem was black mold. Hurst told the leasing office what the inspector had found, but he says they ignored him. He was sick for much of the next 12 months. "Management treated us like cattle," he says. "It all boils down to this: They have a monopoly of on-campus living, and you can either take it or leave it. Unfortunately, there is a long list of takers because there simply isn't anything else."
UTD's Lovitt takes a dim view of these complaints, which he sees as typical student grousing. "You know if there is a leak around the corner, they would rather complain than to get it fixed," he says.
Complaints about Waterview are nothing new. In a July 10, 2000, article in the campus newspaper, April D. Collop wrote that after one month at Waterview, the "toilets, one shower, a smoke detector, sink and our freezer are broken." Because of long hours at work, she often didn't return home until late at night. But the toilets in her apartment frequently didn't work, forcing her to walk to the pool to use its facilities. "The problem also raises a safety issue. An unescorted female at this hour is an open target for criminal minds," she wrote. "Waterview staff informed me that none of these issues are considered emergencies, and maintenance is severely understaffed."
There is no indication whether Collop's problems were fixed.
As chairman of the board and head of student housing at FirstWorthing, Waterview's management firm, Utley knows the complex as well as anyone. And he says management has done a poor job of handling maintenance requests for years. "Our biggest problem is maintenance response," he says. But almost in the same breath, he repeats UTD's mantra that Waterview is a great deal for all. As evidence, he points to the occupancy rate. "They're 99 percent occupied," he says. "So what can I tell you? If we are that bad, people wouldn't live there."
Utley may be correct about the occupancy rate. But not when it comes to the complex's almost 4,000 beds. Lovitt says as many as 1,000 of those beds are empty.
Residents have another explanation for the high occupancy rate. Many say they feel trapped because the school offers a financial incentive that, once accepted, requires them to live there. UTD provides rent subsidies to hundreds of students. In fall 2004, UTD paid housing subsidies for 678 students at Waterview, says Lisa Garza, UTD's residential life coordinator.
Jessica Donnaway, who's majoring in speech language pathology, is one of these students. The 21-year-old graduate student doesn't feel safe at Waterview. She remains there for one reason: a scholarship that pays $500 of her rent each semester for a one-bedroom apartment that rents for $512 a month. "I would rather not live here," she says, adding that she was required to sign a 12-month lease before moving in.
The complaints about Waterview are so numerous that four years ago, UTD's Student Government Association started waterviewsux.com to give students a place to vent. "The Web site is a way for students living in Waterview to voice their concerns," says SGA President Laura Rashedi, a 22-year-old literary studies major. Since June 2001, students have posted more than 1,000 messages on waterviewsux.com. Many of the complaints read like a succession of horror tales with the same awful ending.
One student told Waterview about black mold in July 2001. In response, a maintenance worker "just painted over it and left." As a result, "The air ducts from the A/C are literally growing with this mold." Almost two years later, a student was about to move into Waterview before discovering black mold in the dishwasher and air ducts. Maintenance workers, the student wrote, "cut a new piece of board and placed it on top of the problem and did nothing about the air ducts." The student did not move into Waterview.
Another student complained in February 2002 that water leaking from a ceiling ruined clothes, furniture and the carpet, which Waterview refused to replace. "So sorry for whoever is in #1216," the student wrote. "You get the discolored carpet." More than two years later, a student living in apartment 1218--a ground-floor unit in an adjoining building--awoke at 2:30 in the morning to find water leaking into the apartment from air vents in every room as well as from the ceiling. Despite repeated pleas to management, the student said it took hours to get the leaks stopped. The resident, a graduate student from Taiwan, said the water ruined books, clothes and the carpet. Disgusted, the student asked for a transfer but was turned down. Management, the student wrote, "said they have no obligation to provide me with another place to live." The lesson, according to the student, is simple: "Do not live in Waterview."
Utley says he will not waste his time looking at the Web site. "It's awful," he says. "I don't believe it."
Rashedi, the SGA president, takes a different view. The SGA, she says, "approaches every problem as if it is legitimate." To get a complete picture, the SGA and UTD officials are preparing to survey students living in every apartment at Waterview.
Rashedi, who's lived at Waterview for the past four years, has had her share of problems. "The dishwasher flooded the apartment," she says. "My toilet overflowed for no reason, and there is mold in the bathroom."
Tillery, who's lived at Waterview for more than two years, says his complaints to management have accomplished nothing. He's had to deal with a broken refrigerator and stove and the damage each caused when maintenance workers didn't repair them. When the refrigerator stopped working, Tillery called maintenance and asked them to repair it, explaining that he was about to leave town. When he returned two weeks later, the refrigerator was still broken, leaving water stains on his carpet. Tillery, who works part time at Home Depot, used his skills to fix the refrigerator and, later, the stove. "This is their sore thumb that they know they can still make good money from," says Tillery, who plans to enter the Peace Corps after completing his undergraduate degree.
Shakash Jin agrees. Jin is a tall, dark-haired graduate student from India who moved in 10 months ago. He immediately discovered fungus growing on his bathroom wall. He and his roommates cleaned it repeatedly, but it quickly grew back. Jin says he's asked maintenance to take care of the problem several times, but they have ignored him.
Most students living at Waterview are international students, Jin says. He believes that management feels free to disregard their maintenance requests because they have no housing alternative. "International students come here and they don't have a car, so they have no other option but to live on campus," Jin says. "They get monopolized by Waterview."
Utley blames the international students' way of life for creating many of the problems. "Because a lot of the foreign students cook fish and curry, it's embedded in the walls," he says. "We have to rip the carpet out at turnover."
For many students, crime and poor security are of much greater concern than soiled carpets and leaking toilets. And with good reason. Even before classes began last fall, police reports show that violent crime invaded Waterview.
On August 10, 2004, a student reported being assaulted there. Less than two weeks later, a 19-year-old female student said she was raped in phase 8, the section of Waterview that houses first-year students. In September, a student at Waterview was arrested for aggravated assault, and the following month, police arrested a visitor for aggravated assault at the complex. On November 17, a shooting took place at one Waterview apartment; police later found a .22-caliber round embedded in the wall. The next day Rajamani allegedly drugged and raped "Amy" in phase 2 of Waterview--the first of three sexual assaults reported at the complex during the final six weeks of the year. In early December, a student reported witnessing a sexual assault in phase 7 of the complex. And on December 28, a male student told authorities another man raped him in phase 8 of Waterview.
UTD police declined to discuss these incidents. But they did make one thing clear: Waterview is safe. Asked if crime was a problem at Waterview, Chief Colleen Ridge replied, "Not serious crime. Mostly, we have bike thefts. In fact, the thefts are probably less than you would find in a traditional dormitory."
Many residents think Chief Ridge is kidding herself.
Frank Faber, a 21-year-old senior finance major from El Paso, says burglars struck six apartments at Waterview in January, including a friend's. Faber, a Waterview resident for four years, says lighting is poor in the complex's parking lots and courtyards, a view shared by others. "There's too many dark places where someone can pull you in," says Cynthia Bennett, a senior majoring in computer science. Bennett says she refuses to live alone at Waterview, because she's worried that criminals could easily break into her apartment. "I live on the first floor, and the balcony door is not too safe," she says.
Utley says Waterview's layout is one of the problems. "It's always going to be an issue based on running an open campus," he says. Many universities provide dormitories that require pass cards to enter a building and restrict entry to a handful of doors. But Utley says UTD chose to build apartment-style open housing to accommodate the demographic makeup of students--initially graduate students, many of whom had families. There are no security gates on the perimeter of the massive complex and no security measures that control access to individual buildings. Security rests solely in the hands of the UTD police. "We have no control over security," Utley says. Chief Ridge says she has 19 commissioned officers to cover Waterview and the rest of the 500-acre UTD campus but refuses to discuss how they are deployed.
The situation worried Utley enough that he hired a security consultant two years ago to assess Waterview. "I got deeply concerned," he says. Utley promised to provide a copy of the study to the Observer, then changed his mind. The consultant found that lighting and the frequency of police patrols were inadequate, Utley says. "They had a drive schedule in the evenings that wasn't enough."
After the study was completed, Utley says, he persuaded UTD to increase police patrols at Waterview. But getting the school to act wasn't easy. "All of this was very sensitive and political with the university," he says.
Utley says he shared the consultant's findings with Lovitt, Chief Ridge and other UTD officials. "They certainly got a copy of the study," he says, "and we certainly had discussions about the findings." Ridge and Lovitt, however, told the Observer they knew nothing about the study. Ridge said, "That's the first I've heard about it."
When serious crimes have occurred at Waterview, authorities have often left students in the dark. The university didn't issue an alert following any of the four reported rapes in fall 2004. In fact, of 10 sexual assaults reported at the complex over the past three years, police issued crime alerts in just two cases. In both, the suspect was unknown. The other eight were so-called acquaintance rapes in which the victim knew the attacker.
The Clery Act--a federal law named after Jeanne Ann Clery, a Pennsylvania college student who was raped, sodomized, tortured and murdered in her dorm room in 1986--requires that colleges issue alerts whenever a crime takes place that is "considered by the institution to represent a threat to students and employees."
UTD officials say they are living up to the letter and spirit of the law. Police say they did not issue alerts for the eight rapes because they knew the identity of the suspects and therefore believed they did not pose a threat to the UTD community. "A crime alert is not going to assist in an acquaintance rape," Ridge says.
Campus security advocates and rape crisis experts say this approach is wrongheaded. "Students should know about acquaintance rapists," says Joetta Carr, an assistant professor of psychology at Western Michigan University's counseling center. "They are serial rapists, they are very dangerous, and they are predators."
A recent study by Carr of violent crime on college campuses shows just how dangerous acquaintance rapists can be. The study, sponsored by the American College Health Association, found that 79 percent of sexual assaults involve students who know one another.
S. Daniel Carter, senior vice president of Security on Campus, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving campus safety, says colleges that repeatedly fail to issue crime alerts sometimes have a vested self-interest in withholding information from students. "In reality, the reason schools don't issue these alerts is that often they've allowed the rapist to remain on campus," he says. "And if they issue the alert, they are then admitting that they have allowed a known threat to student safety to remain on campus. That is something they dare not do for fear of the obvious backlash."
Students aren't the only ones who have a difficult time getting crime information from police. Utley says UTD police often leave him uninformed. "If there is a sexual offense, we can't get the details," he says. "We are informed after the fact in general terms."
Other Texas colleges are far more open in telling students about acquaintance rape. Southern Methodist University recently dropped its policy of not issuing alerts when acquaintance rapes occur, and police at the University of Texas at Austin routinely issue an alert for stranger and acquaintance rapes, provided it doesn't compromise an investigation, says officer William Pieper. "By informing the community about sexual assaults, we can aid them in avoidance of sexual assault," he says.
Lovitt dismisses concerns about crime at Waterview. "[There's] no crime problem," he says.
In a follow-up interview, two reporters questioned Lovitt, Chief Ridge and several other UTD officials at length about the rapes reported at Waterview and student concerns about security. In response, some UTD officials rolled their eyes, smirked and laughed while exchanging private notes with one another. And they again dismissed concerns that sexual assaults might threaten UTD students.
"I don't see it as a problem," Ridge said.
For Utley, Waterview is a brilliant real estate venture, one that's already provided his family with millions of dollars in profits. He says it will also provide UTD with tens of millions of dollars over the next 25 years. "It's a win-win deal for everybody," says Utley, a heavyset man with silver hair ringing the crown of his head and blue eyes peering out from rimless glasses.
It all began, he says, with a question put to him in the mid-1980s by Jess Hay, then the chair of the UT Board of Regents: How could student housing be provided at UTD?
The university was about to undergo a change in identity. Since its inception in the 1960s, UTD had been a small commuter school that mainly provided graduate courses in engineering and the sciences. The university needed housing for its students. And it wanted to grow by offering four-year degree programs for undergraduates. But where would they live?
Utley came up with a novel idea--he would build, own and manage student housing on the UTD campus using his own resources to underwrite the initial deal. "The first property was built totally on our credit," he says.
The first 200 apartments, known as phase 1, opened in 1989. Over the next six years, Utley added three more phases under the same terms as the first. By 1995, Waterview had grown to 696 apartments.
Then UTD officials decided they wanted to own a piece of Waterview. Utley's company would build and manage future additions, but UTD would own them. That's what happened with the next 541 apartments.
In 2002, the Utleys approached the university about selling their interest in the first four phases. But the UT system rejected the request. Utley says his family came back with a different pitch: They would form a nonprofit foundation that would buy the 696 apartments. The deal would be financed with $55.4 million in tax-exempt bonds. Utley says his family's partnerships sold the 696 apartments for their appraised value, which he wouldn't disclose.
Utley insists the family's motives in selling the property were altruistic. "We decided that setting up the foundation and letting them buy the property at a reasonable price could be a benefit to the university long-term," he says.
UTD gets to keep all the money that goes to the foundation other than what's needed to pay off the bonds, which, with interest, comes to $112 million, Utley says. Over the next 25 years, he adds, the 696 apartments will provide UTD with more than $50 million. In all, he says, the entire complex will take in $300 million in rent, with the profits going to UTD.
While UTD and the Utleys rake in millions, Waterview residents pay premium prices for what many residents view as substandard housing. Utley insists, however, that "the value received for what's paid is one of the best in the country."
A comparison of rents at UTD and other nearby apartment complexes suggests otherwise. For example, Waterview charges $602 a month for a one-bedroom, one-bath apartment with 667 square feet. Two nearby complexes charge less and offer more space. A one-bedroom, one-bath apartment with 674 square feet at Summer Villas in the 17000 block of Preston Road costs $580 a month. Carlton Court, located in the 13000 block of Maham Road, charges $531 for the same apartment with 690 square feet.
Waterview has allowed UTD to expand dramatically. Its enrollment, slightly more than 8,000 in 1989, now exceeds 14,000--a 75 percent increase. Utley says he's had no problem filling Waterview. Nevertheless, the university recently made several changes to increase occupancy. It allows staff members and faculty to live at Waterview, and now a person enrolled in as few as three hours of UTD classes can rent an apartment there--and his or her roommates don't have to be enrolled.
Utley predicts that Waterview will remain the sole source of on-campus housing for UTD students until 2045. Which, in Lovitt's view, is exactly as it should be.
"It helped us grow enrollment, and we have apartments on campus with no financial risk," says Lovitt, who will retire in May.
Several students said they were outraged to learn the Utley family had made millions off Waterview--and UTD stands to make tens of millions more--in exchange for problem-plagued housing. They say UTD officials should invest some of those profits in Waterview, but Utley says conditions and maintenance will improve only if UTD increases rents.
As for his family's Waterview profits, Utley sees it in relative terms. "We made about 10 million bucks--net," he says, the trace of a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. "Is that a lot?"
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