By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
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By Sean Pendergast
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By Jeff Balke
On the night of September 18, a custodian at Rice University surprised intruders who were trying to steal a video projector from the humanities building. They knocked her down and fled with a stolen flat-screen computer monitor.
But instead of escaping from the campus, the thieves turned their Jeep Cherokee onto the inner loop of Rice and headed to the computer science building. A custodian saw them trying to remove another video projector. This time campus police were waiting for the pair at the building's exit.
"They were very bold or completely stupid, I'm not sure which," said Rice police Lieutenant Phil Hassell. The culprits certainly weren't any hardened criminal types -- they were just college kids, students with fairly impressive credentials, at that.
They came from financially stable families. The seniors had encountered no major problems in their years at Rice. The two arrived with track and swimming scholarships. On the academic side, they sported better than B averages. By all indications, Scott Byer and Francisco Padua had everything going for them.
And their explanation for the antics of that evening were -- at least to those familiar with Rice traditions -- silly but somewhat understandable. On a campus where sometimes outlandish stunts are a regular part of student life, Byer and Padua said they took the projector and computer screen as nothing more than equipment for a lighthearted prank they'd planned.
"The administration doesn't want any trouble over this," Byer was quoted as somberly telling the student newspaper. "And we definitely want to work with them in any way we can."
So investigators seemed to have only two college kids who were contrite over a campus caper gone awry. And the situation likely would have remained as nothing more than that -- if Rice police hadn't picked the right time to head to dinner ten days later.
Lieutenant Hassell had a few anonymous tips and his own suspicions that Byer and Padua were possibly involved in more than the single theft. As he and another officer went to pick up some food on September 28, those hunches turned into hard evidence. As they were driving down South Main, they glanced over at the Safeguard self-storage complex. Padua's Cherokee was parked out front. So was Byer's truck.
The officers pulled into the facility and quickly surprised the two students as they unloaded a large storage locker. They were moving out an iMac computer stolen from Wiess College on the Rice campus. There was a university laptop computer. And a DVD player and a VCR and other electronic equipment. Along with that stolen loot was a love seat, coffee table, lamps, leather couch and chairs that had once been the furnishings for various academic buildings at Rice.
As it turned out, on the night they were originally arrested, one of the suspects had called a friend while in custody and had him transfer loads of stolen goods from their apartment to the storage unit.
This time police treated the pair not like pranksters but as professional thieves -- and dumb ones at that. "They not only picked the closest storage facility to campus but also closest to where we eat," Hassell said.
Officers recovered nearly $20,000 in stolen goods from the storage locker. That night Padua and Byer signed a statement admitting they had been stealing from Rice since their freshman year. Hassell made them a deal: He would not file charges on any property that they returned voluntarily. So Byer and Padua consented to a search of their upscale apartment near Holcombe and Buffalo Speedway.
Police found another large stash of stolen goods used for decorating and entertaining at that apartment. Some of it came from Wiess College, the residential and social group for Byer and Padua. There was a 200-disc CD changer that had been taken two years earlier, along with its CDs, from the popular "Five Man" party room at Wiess.
They hadn't stolen just from the university; students were targeted as well. Over the years at Wiess, a guitar and amp disappeared from a girl's bedroom, and backpacks vanished from the cafeteria. They'd broken the locks and hauled off the stereo and iMac that had been installed in the Wiess basement for use by all students.
Byer and Padua expanded their exploits to at least seven different academic buildings. The booty included new furniture, flat-screen computer monitors and $5,000 projector systems installed in the ceilings. Three projector systems disappeared from Sewall Hall in the winter of '99. Those were replaced -- the replacements disappeared over the next few months.
Their residence yielded thousands of dollars more in hot goods. "Once we cleaned out their apartment" of the stolen property, said Hassell, "there wasn't a whole lot left in there." Based on the statements and seizures of property, some $85,000 worth of goods was estimated to have been stolen in more than 20 different crimes. Hassell said Byer and Padua accounted for about 50 percent of the total campus burglaries and thefts over the past three years. After hearing reports from other students, Hassell suspects the total haul may be as high as $200,000. What bothered police as much as the burglaries was that the thefts were hardly a secret among some students.
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.
"I'm glad we got caught," said Padua. "Luckily it was early enough that we don't continue, like into our jobs." The worst part was the shame they brought on their families, the two said. They've both been expelled from Rice, and Padua has enrolled at the University of Houston. Their companion, Rice grad Christian "Ash" Martinez, faces a separate charge for allegedly helping them in the foiled September 18 burglary.
The biggest challenge for Byer and Padua now will be trying to avoid jail -- convictions carry up to two-year sentences. They were turned down in an effort to get pretrial diversion, which would have taken away the criminal charge if they performed community service and stayed out of trouble. The next hearing in the case is scheduled for December 27.
Hassell says he believes the defendants shouldn't get probation.
"I'm not a hardnose," said Hassell, "but I'd fight against anything short of jail time. They were Rice students and had a great future, but that doesn't give them an excuse. These guys are thieves."
University police have stepped up crime prevention programs on campus but say it would be impractical to add restrictions to building access. "If you have a research institution, then that's the way it has to be," said Rice Sergeant Jim Baylor. "For every security measure, there's a lack of freedom."
Meanwhile, Hassell hopes for the return of more stolen property that he believes is still out there. He's sure there are students who know where some of it is -- but who are keeping silent. That's one of the most disheartening aspects of the case, he said. "Quite frankly, I wish the student body had given more credence to the honor code instead of mouthing the words."
Byer told of only a few companions who questioned the thefts. "I had one or two friends who said, 'Scott, it's your one bad flaw.'"