The scene of the crime: Rice University. The object of the criminals' affection: small electric golf carts Rice uses for maintenance and cross-campus trips. The debate: Who's the smarter criminal? Smarty-pants Rice kids with staggering GPAs, or local punks with some misdemeanor know-how?
The whodunit began innocently enough the week of September 11. Rice sent three devil-may-care freshmen to University Court after another student reported that they were repeatedly ramming three of the carts into the walls of Weiss College.
"It's what they consider a joke; they just had a little demolition derby," says Rice University Police Chief Bill Taylor. Stealing carts has been a popular Rice prank for years, says Russell Price, the facilities and engineering maintenance manager who oversees the 120 carts and four flatbed tractors kept on campus. Rice employees use them for transportation. Rice students apparently use them to ram into walls.
"The upperclassmen entice the freshmen to do it. They say it's fun to "jack' the carts," says Price, using Rice slang for stealing something as a joke, "but actually they do it to get the freshmen in trouble."
But the case of the carts took a stranger turn in the few days following the first incident. Five more Rice vehicles were snatched and driven off Rice property. The culprits were not those crazy Rice kids out for kicks on a Friday night, but rather middle school kids who figured wall-ramming is passé. The real fun, they decided, is joyriding.
In three separate instances, Rice workers and neighbors saw several preteen boys, some still decked out in their public school uniforms, riding Rice carts. In another incident, they saw a kid driving off in one of the university's flatbed tractors. Taylor says some of the thefts occurred midday, when the boys should have been in school. One thief made it as far as the Texas Medical Center area, but when he thought he had been spotted by a Rice employee he jumped cart and made a run for it. The cart was recovered. The boy was not. The ruffian who pulled off the tractor heist was last seen on the east side of campus. Neither has been located.
"We hadn't even made the first payment on that tractor," says Taylor.
Another cart disappeared from campus and remains missing. Rice retrieved one stolen cart that had been abandoned in the West Stadium Lot near the intersection of Greenbriar and Rice Boulevard. To add insult to injury, Rice police discovered someone had attempted to hot-wire a cart outside Alice Pratt Brown Hall.
"You know, they don't have their licenses. The carts are something they can drive, and they just think it's something fun to do," says Price. "Years ago, when I took my kids for a ride in a golf cart, they thought it was the best thing that ever happened to them."
The only arrests in the capers came when Houston park patrol officers caught up with four kids cavorting in a Rice cart on the Hermann Park Golf Course September 21. HISD press secretary Terry Abbott says at least some of those students attended Attucks Middle School on Bellfort, not far from Rice. The cart was returned unharmed, and the boys were arrested for theft. Rice did not file charges, says Abbott, but one of the middle school students has agreed to help find another cart that's still missing.
"There's no telling why they did this," Abbott says. "Probably the same thing that gets all kids to do strange things sometimes."
Taylor is less forgiving.
"These kids, to them it's a joke," he says. "These kids were seasoned."
Rice doesn't exactly have a lockdown on the carts. Price says the keys are often left in the ignition, and many of the vehicles aren't even marked as Rice property.
"Rice likes to reserve their academic labels for something more important than golf carts," he admits.
Time is on Rice's side, however. Because the carts are electrically powered, unless someone figures out how to rejuice them, they'll turn up eventually.
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"We hope they dumped them somewhere," Taylor says. "Hopefully not in a bayou."
Price also thinks the addition of a kill switch will help deter other youths from burning rubber courtesy of Rice.
"It would have to be a secret switch where no one would know where it was," says Price.
The vehicle disappearances have stopped for now. "But it doesn't mean it couldn't happen again tomorrow," Taylor warns. What it probably does mean is that even though some of these kids managed to get onto Rice, they've probably just lowered their chances of getting into it.