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As the investigation broadened, the suspects seemed almost naive about its scope.
Hassell said the students were most concerned that they might be suspended for the semester. That was the least of their worries. They were charged with two felonies.
Byer and Padua insist they had gone to the storage locker only to return that loot to Rice police. "If there was one mistake we made, it was not calling the cops and saying we would be up there" at the storage unit, Byer said.
"I'm not sure that I bought that," said Hassell. "They wanted to get rid of it, but they may have been dumping it in the bayou for all I know."
The two first arrived at Rice in 1997 as star athletes from their high schools. Byer, a standout sprinter and medium-distance runner from the tiny Central Texas town of Franklin, was mentioned in the Houston Chronicle when he signed on for a full track scholarship at Rice. Padua gained his scholarship on the Rice swim team. He'd emerged from tony Strake Jesuit prep school in Houston, where he'd made a name for himself in water sports.
Padua had an upper-class upbringing at his parents' posh Piney Point home, valued on the tax rolls at nearly $400,000. His personal Web page boasts of his deep-sea fishing expeditions in various parts of the world, and it shows off his '97 Camaro. "This summer I was talking outside with my girlfriend, and my parents drove up surprising me with this new sports car," he gushes on the Web page. "It was awesome!!!!"
At Rice, the two soon formed a clique with a few other guys. But the group wasn't uniformly popular around Wiess College, one of Rice's eight dorm and social units. Padua's Web page refers to a group of friends as the "mafia" and has the typical young macho hell-raising tones. "We have scored all over the globe," it says, adding that readers can interpret "score" any way they like.
His Web site includes an animated cartoon image of a cop chasing a motorcyclist. "This below is a typical sight of my boys and I trying to outrun the police," it boasts. "Of course , we never get caught..never"
Hassell would later be amused at Padua's Internet graphics. "The stupider they think we are, the easier it is to catch them."
Wiess student president Josh Katz considered Byer somewhat cocky, but pointed to Padua as the "aggressive and belligerent" one, the "loose cannon."
Katz lived near Padua's dorm room as a freshman. "The real fun thing that he liked to do was turn up his stereo as loud as possible when he was going to swim practice, at 5 a.m. It shook my walls." Those pranks ended when Padua moved off campus after his freshman year. The following year he quit the swim team. Byer still ran cross-country and track.
Susanna Shepard, a Wiess senior, called Byer and Padua "wanna-be fraternity types," although she and several students described the two as harmless. (The Rice Thresher newspaper honored exemplary attendance at the on-campus pub with honors titled the "Scott Byer Award.")
Byer and Padua were pursuing double majors in political science and managerial studies and had amassed good academic records. The fourth-year students looked forward to diplomas and talked about the possibility of going on to graduate school.
Rice provided them with ample career opportunities -- as well as wide-open opportunities to steal. Padua and Byer simply took advantage of the low-security university setting and began with petty thefts.
"It started out as little pranks, and when we continued, it was with the same mentality," said Byer. "We never sat down and thought about it like, "This is too easy.' " The two talked of rationalizing the crimes as nothing more than humorous escapades.
"It started as a joke -- there's so many people that take shit," Padua said. Byer elaborated: "Yeah, people would take a couch from the Commons and put it in their room.That's how we made it okay -- it was a joke. We were taking it from an institution."
As the stealing increased, the pair appeared to take an almost casual approach. Tommy Oleksy, a sophomore trackmate of Byer's, recalled his visit to the duo's apartment last spring. He was impressed by the high-tech entertainment equipment they'd amassed. "They kind of bragged about it," said Oleksy. "I'd say, "Hey, where did you get this?' and they'd say something like, "Sid Rich College.' "
While police speculate that some of the loot may have been sold to friends, the two deny that they ever took money for it. One student told Hassell that "they were giving stuff away like Santa Claus."
Money must not have been the motivation, some students say. "The only reason they would do this is for the thrill and sense of power," says Wiess senior Lizzie Taishoff. "They don't need the money."
Padua admitted that as many as 40 students knew about the thefts. Attorneys for the two refused to let them discuss specifics, but they described the young men as solid citizens who were paying for their mistake. Chip Lewis, Padua's lawyer, pointed out that Padua started a tutoring program for high school students, obtained his real estate license and held down a full-time job while at Rice.
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