A Texas Welcome

Pavel Lachko, a Russian student at the University of Texas at Arlington, was in America for about a month when he received a rude cultural lesson he won't soon forget: In these post-September 11 times, young foreign men aren't allowed innocent mistakes.

On September 6, Lachko and his roommate, fellow Russian student Boris Avdeev, wandered on their bicycles into the employee parking lot of the Arlington police station looking for someone to give them directions. Rather than giving them answers, police locked them in handcuffs, held them for questioning by an agent from the Department of Homeland Security and charged them with criminal trespassing.

"We were looking for a rock-climbing gym," Lachko says of his Saturday-afternoon excursion by bike from the house he and Avdeev rent near the UTA campus.

Instead of turning east on Arlington's Front Street--toward the Dyno-Rock Indoor Climbing Gym--he and Avdeev turned west, where the road dead-ends into a set of unguarded parking gates behind the Arlington police station and jail. "It seems stupid right now, yes, but we decided to go around them," says Lachko. "We didn't know this was a police place."

Between the parking gates is a small sign--at a height best seen by someone driving--reading, "No Entry Permitted. City of Arlington authorized personnel only. Violators will be prosecuted."

A larger sign on a nearby fence warns against unauthorized parking. Nowhere is the place identified as the Arlington police headquarters and jail, or the Ott Cribbs Public Safety Center, its official name.

Once on the lot, Lachko says, he and his friend spotted two police officers, a man and woman, near a building, which from the back looks like a modern, glass-and-cement office building.

"First thing, he ordered us to stop," Lachko says.

He says he explained that they were looking for the climbing gym and when asked for ID, they turned over their UTA student identification cards, which were all they had with them.

"I heard the male officer say into his radio that we are Pakistanis," Lachko says. "We said, 'No, no, no. We are not Pakistanis. We're Russians.'"

After about 20 minutes of standing with the police, he says, the officers took out their handcuffs and placed the men under arrest.

"We take building security extremely seriously in the wake of 9-11," said Sergeant Will Johnson, an Arlington police spokesman, when asked about the matter. "We follow the directions and information provided by federal authorities. One of the precautions taken is to ensure that the security of the police department is maintained."

Johnson said he did not know whether the two young men were initially taken to be Middle Easterners, and he insisted the arrests had nothing to do with their nationality.

"They were arrested because they violated the traffic control device. There is no access except through a traffic control device," he says. "Nationality played no role in the decision."

The two Russians' American friends say that is difficult to believe.

"The police were either paranoid, which I doubt, or they were simply harassing foreigners," says Michael Dailey, a retiree taking graduate classes in German at the school. He says foreign students, who number about 3,000 at UTA, should be treated with more understanding.

Professor Charles McDowell, director of the university's Russian department, says he is certain that the two students made an innocent mistake. "I'm convinced they didn't know they were doing anything wrong," says McDowell.

If the police thought them dangerous, then that, too, was a mistake, he says. "Apparently they mistook them for Middle Easterners," he says. "Boris' complexion is a little darker than Pavel's, but neither of them look like they could be Pakistanis or Palestinians or whatever the police thought."

McDowell said the arrest is a serious matter for Lachko, who came to the university on a prestigious and competitive Russian leadership fellowship sponsored by the International Research and Exchange Board, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group. "If they go ahead with this and he's convicted, he goes back to Russia. Obviously that kind of outcome would be bad for him and bad for the whole program," McDowell says.

He says he helped put the two young men in touch with a local lawyer, who has agreed to take the case at no charge. McDowell, who also is raising money at his Kiwanis Club chapter to help defray the cost of their bail, says he would like to see the charges dropped.

Arlington police and a U.S. Border Patrol criminal investigations officer from Euless were eventually able to identify the two students and ascertain that they are in the country legally. "If that's what they were after, then it's done," McDowell says.

Lachko, a 22-year-old who graduated from a Russian university in July, said he was selected for the Russian Young Leadership Fellows for Public Service program because of his academic credentials and volunteer work with a children's charity in Russia. He is taking graduate courses at UTA in economics, finance and credit.

Avdeev, who is studying geology, declined to give an interview. He said he preferred to let Lachko tell their story in his more proficient English.

The two students spent six hours in the Arlington jail before one of their roommates called a bondsman to bail them out. All-Nite Bail Bonds in Arlington charged the two Russians $390 each to post their $750 bails. Fernando Ortiz, the bondsman, says the amount sounds high but that roughly half of it will be refundable if the students appear as required.

"I'll be a lot more cautious because of this," Lachko says. "I realize now I shouldn't have been there. It was wrong, but I'm not sure it was wrong enough to get arrested."

He says he has learned other things as well. "After all of this was finished, I was amazed to see a lot of Americans were eager to help me. They told me they didn't understand why it happened, and they were upset. In Russia, that wouldn't have happened. Nobody will support you like that, so it's a great lesson for me, a great experience."