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Idaho professor who killed student: Secret records revealed

October 27, 2011 |  2:12 pm

Duane Nellis
Ernesto Bustamante, the University of Idaho professor who killed a student before taking his own life this summer, apparently told the university shortly after he was hired in 2007 that he was suffering from bipolar disorder.

The acknowledgement -- Bustamante, 31, also said he was taking medication for the disorder -- can be found in previously secret records that the institution is now making public.

The records also reveal that the assistant professor of psychology had been the subject of previous student complaints about inappropriate relationships with students before the liaison with psychology student Katy Benoit.

The 22-year-old graduate student was shot to death outside her home in Moscow, Idaho, in August after warning university authorities that Bustamante had threatened her with a gun on three occasions.

Benoit had met with a college official about Bustamante's menacing behavior on the very day she was killed, the records show. Carmen Suarez, director of the university's office of human rights, informed her that Bustamante had resigned but that she should remain vigilant and contact the police if she had concern for her safety.

"The university responded immediately and decisively to protect Katy and to remove Bustamante from our community. We communicated and coordinated with Katy and the Moscow Police Department, and counseled Katy repeatedly to seek protection and use violence protection resources available to her. We still, however, suffered an unthinkable tragedy," university President M. Duane Nellis said at a news conference.

"Since Katy's death, every person associated with the university has grappled with this tragedy," he said. "We're not over it. We'll never be over it."

News organizations in Idaho on Thursday received more than 4,200 pages of documents relating to the university's handling of the case, including all email involving Benoit and Bustamante since 2010.

A summary notes that Bustamante, hired in August 2007, revealed his problems with bipolar disorder almost immediately but proceeded to get good evaluations from students and supervisors, both of whom credited him for making usually unpopular classes more interesting.

The professor showed "exemplary levels of productivity and engagement," a December 2009 review reported. He was easily on track for winning tenure at the university, the records say.

But not all the reports were positive. In his first fall semester at the university, Bustamante was the target of complaints from three or four female students about his purported "flirtatious behavior and favoritism," according to the university's records. Asked about it, Bustamante told a supervisor the students had "misunderstood his friendship with a student as a fellow Hispanic."

Benoit enrolled in Bustamante's psychology class in August 2010, and in December there was a call to the university's ethics and compliance hot line, claiming that Bustamante was having sexual relationships with students and had an "abusive and coercive" relationship with one student.

The university immediately began investigating the claim. The student with whom he was purportedly being abusive -- not Benoit -- denied there had been any abuse or coercion and declined to file a complaint, according to the university's reports.

Katherine Aiken, dean of the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences, and another university official met with Bustamante six days after the hotline call. They told him that if he was having a relationship with a student it "must stop immediately." They also counseled him on the "implications" of a professor's "power and influence" over a student.

Bustamante denied having any improper relationships.

But this spring he reported to supervisors that he was having "significant withdrawal symptoms" because of a change in his medication.

A month later, in June, Benoit filed her initial complaint with the university about Bustamante, who was her faculty advisor. In that complaint, cited by the Moscow-Pullman Daily News, Benoit said Bustamante had threatened her on three occasions with a handgun.

"Most of my activities at this University are somehow related to him and I don't want to ruin my academic career, but I cannot take classes of his any longer nor can I permit this twisted behavior to continue for the sake of myself and other women who will come after me," the complaint said.

Police found Bustamante dead in a Moscow hotel room not long after Benoit's slaying. He had suffered a self-inflicted shot to the head from one of six guns found in the room. Also found were four medications used for sleep disorders, anxiety and bipolar disorder.

Nellis said the university is preparing to strengthen its policies against faculty-student relationships, which already prohibit liaisons between students and staff members when a supervisory or academic relationship exists. It is also requiring additional training for faculty members and supervisors on sexual harrassment.

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-- Kim Murphy in Seattle

Photo: University of Idaho president M. Duane Nellis at a news conference announcing the release of former assistant professor Ernesto Bustamante's personnel records. Credit: Geoff Crimmins/Moscow-Pullman Daily News

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