Fulton Police, Campus Security Urge Caution in Wake of Local Clown Sightings
BY JIM MALVEN
At approximately 1:30 a.m. Tuesday, sophomore Lydia Creech pulled into a parking spot behind Sloss Hall to drop off first-year student Barret Houska at his room. The two had spent the night studying at the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house. Houska gave Creech a goodbye hug and was about to get out of Creech’s Toyota Yaris when he noticed a white pickup truck parked behind them. Houska realized that the driver was laughing, and he asked Creech what was going on. He then spotted a figure walking past the car, and Creech saw that figure – a man wearing a “really creepy” clown mask with orange-red hair and “scary teeth” showing – crouched over next to her driver’s side door.
Creech immediately locked her door and told Houska to lock his. The man quickly returned to the truck, where two unmasked men were still sitting, and drove away. After waiting about 15 minutes, Houska walked to his room, and Creech drove away.
This is one of at least two incidents that occurred in Fulton last week in which a man in a clown mask approached Westminster students. Although Fulton Police Major Roger Rice said that he had not heard of anything like this happening in Fulton prior to last week, there have been several clown sightings across the nation since the start of August.
Westminster’s first known clown incident took place last Monday, according to an email sent to students, faculty and staff Tuesday evening by Interim Vice President and Dean of Student Life Dan Haslag. The message, titled “Campus Alert – Individuals wearing clown masks,” stated that two Westminster students were driving within Fulton’s city limits and noticed two men in a white pickup truck next to them wearing clown masks. As the students parked outside Sweazey Hall, one of the masked men “approached the students’ vehicle and tried to enter” but “ran away” after realizing the door was locked.
A few hours after that incident, Creech and Houska were approached by the clown in the parking lot. Creech said that the situation lasted less than a minute and that although she was confused while it was happening and locked her car door, she did not feel threatened afterwards.
However, she and Houska decided to contact Campus Security after reading Haslag’s email.
“That’s the only reason we said something,” Creech said. “We thought (the incident) was just a joke; I wasn’t actually scared by it, but to hear it happened to somebody else – they tried to get in their car or whatever – we were like, ‘Oh, maybe we should tell security.’”
Director of Campus Safety and Security Geoff Crosby said that the first reports of clown sightings came in to Security at about 5 p.m. Tuesday. He said that he received a call from an on-duty security officer who received a report of the clown following the two students and trying to enter their vehicle. Crosby then sent a text message containing this information to a safety committee, composed of Haslag, Jackie Weber, Jack Benke and Dr. Kasi Lacey.
Later that night, at 7:12 p.m., Haslag sent the email. He followed it up two minutes later with a near copy. The only difference was the addition of the words “please read!” in the subject line.
Students continued to report tips to Security throughout the night, and by 10 p.m., security officers had identified a vehicle that was at both scenes. Police then questioned its owner, a Westminster student who reportedly told officers that he intended to prank students – not harm or rob them. The police did not file any charges.
On Thursday afternoon, Crosby, after speaking with the student, sent an email to faculty, students and staff to update them on what had happened. He also expressed gratitude toward the students who had reported tips.
Crosby and Major Rice said they are confident that the student did have innocent intentions, but they still believe students should be careful.
“Students should always be aware of their surroundings, but if somebody approaches you with a clown mask, you don’t really know what their intent is – whether it’s a prank or if they’re going to attempt to rob you,” Rice said.
Crosby added that students who are confronted by a clown should “automatically call 911,” which they can do on their cell phones or on campus emergency phones. Crosby emphasized that students should not try to physically combat the clown, but that they should try to escape the situation.
In Creech and Houska’s situation, Creech said that she locked her door, told Houska to lock his and said that she was willing to run over the clown if the situation escalated.
“It was just really confusing, because I didn’t know what was happening,” Houska said. “I only saw the truck and the guy laughing, and then I saw him walking past the car. By that time, (Creech) had already seen him and reached to lock my door . . . but it was just really confusing, because he didn’t gain anything from it.”
Creech added, “It was definitely scary in the moment, because I had no idea what was happening, but we laughed about it a lot after it was over.”
However, not all clown incidents are laughing matters. On Sept. 25, an individual wearing a clown mask stabbed a 16-year-old to death in Reading, Pennsylvania, after a fight broke out between the two.
So far, there has been no violence from clowns in Fulton, but that does not mean that students or residents are comfortable with the clowns.
“At this point, I don’t want to say it’s necessarily calm. … It’s not threatening, but it could become a threatening issue in the future if it continues to go on,” Creech said.
Rice added, “See, what can start out as a prank and everybody thinks it’s a big joke because it’s happening all the time could turn into something. Criminal elements watch this stuff too.”
Currently, though, Rice is more concerned about the clowns’ safety than students’, saying, “Those people need to be extremely careful.”
Lieutenant Bill Ledwig explained, “People have phobias, and people carry guns in cars; it could end very badly very quickly.”
He added that the Castle Doctrine allows people to use force, including firearms, to protect themselves and their property.
Per Westminster’s Weapons Policy, students are required to have weapons such as firearms and switchblades stored by Campus Security, but like Crosby, Rice said that a violent reaction is probably not the way to go: “I wouldn’t try to take them on because you don’t know what you’re dealing with – this could be a criminal, or it could be a fellow student.”
Overall, Crosby said that he was “very pleased and happy about the way (the situation) was handled.”
“We have a protocol in place for stuff like this, and it went exactly the way it should have,” he said. “Once the email got out there about the clowns, everybody did what they needed to do; students stepped forward and gave information and tips, which led to us getting the situation resolved as soon as possible.”