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.

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Samantha Liskow