It's one thing to be mistaken for a common criminal. But looking like a sex offender--a man seen masturbating in a car--is quite another.
Just ask John Gidcumb, a student last semester at ASU West. He weathered the wrath of other students who mistook him for a man in a composite drawing of a sex-crime suspect posted around campus.
Gidcumb's problems started when a "crime alert" poster was put up on about ten bulletin boards around campus. The flier stated that on June 23, a woman saw a man sitting in his car on campus. "Victim saw the suspect masturbating as his pants were down around his knees," the flier says. "Suspect left the area quickly when the victim began yelling at him and causing a commotion, attracting the attention of nearby people."
The suspect was described as a white male with short, neatly cut, black hair, who wore wire-rimmed glasses and a white tee shirt. He was driving a white car thought to be a Ford Mustang.
The description matched Gidcumb closely: He wears glasses, combs his dark-brown hair back and drives a white Toyota Corolla. He says he often wears white tee shirts.
"I look like this individual," Gidcumb says, "but it wasn't me."
The poster also identified the suspect as "baby-faced" and in his early 20s. Gidcumb is 35. And Gidcumb has an artificial leg--something the victim did not report seeing. Police ruled out Gidcumb as a suspect, ASU West police chief Charles Erickson says.
But that didn't matter to some students. As often as four or five times a week, Gidcumb says, students confronted him with accusations of various sexual misdeeds. "I was being called a pervert, 'Mr. Jack-me-off,' you name it," he says. "In one class, a girl came up to me and asked, 'Do you like masturbating?'
". . . Some of them were very hostile. I'd be eating breakfast and they'd walk up to me and say, 'You pervert.' . . . I had girls ask, 'Why don't you jack off at home?'"
At first, Gidcumb--who is married and has a 9-year-old son--ignored the comments. But when the poster was left up at the beginning of the fall semester, it got to him. He finally complained after his son saw the flier while attending a campus event.
Gidcumb dropped out of classes and went to see a psychologist. He's considering suing the university for defamation of character.
With a student population that is 70 percent female, ASU West officials don't take sex crimes lightly. "We take anything that looks like sexual harassment and assault very seriously," says Spencer Johnson, associate director for student affairs.
Indeed, the exposure case was the first crime in campus history that warranted a flier with picture, Erickson says.
University officials say they removed the fliers when Gidcumb complained in late September. As late as mid-December, however, Gidcumb found a poster in the student registration area. "It's ridiculous," he says. "They're still not taking this seriously."
Chief Erickson scrambled to remove the latest flier. "I had it impounded," he says. "I wasn't going to risk just throwing it in the trash."
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Aside from removing the posters, there wasn't much more university officials could do for Gidcumb, Johnson says. "We can't interfere with their [students'] right to express themselves," he says.
Johnson adds that Gidcumb himself brought attention to his resemblance to the suspect in October when he began approaching classmates to ask them to testify in a lawsuit against the university. Gidcumb says he only asked students who had heard remarks if they would be willing to say what they had heard.
Adding insult to injury, Gidcumb wound up getting into an argument on the telephone with Nancy Tribbensee, associate general counsel for ASU. Now Tribbensee has filed a complaint against Gidcumb, accusing him of threatening and intimidating her. Gidcumb was to face a hearing on the charge this week.
Gidcumb planned to enroll at ASU West in the fall, but isn't sure anymore.
"These people had decided it was me," he says. "Has it ruined me? The biggest problem I have now is, are these people going to remember?