Now Reading
Robbins: UA had 'systemic failures' before shooting death of Prof. Meixner

Robbins: UA had 'systemic failures' before shooting death of Prof. Meixner

University of Arizona faces potential $9 million lawsuit from family of slain professor

  • Holding a red folder, UA President Robert C. Robbins presented the PAX Group report during a press conference Monday afternoon.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comHolding a red folder, UA President Robert C. Robbins presented the PAX Group report during a press conference Monday afternoon.
  • Slain Prof. Thomas Meixner
    UA College of ScienceSlain Prof. Thomas Meixner
  • An altar for Thomas Meixner at Chris Castro's home on Oct. 12, 2022.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comAn altar for Thomas Meixner at Chris Castro's home on Oct. 12, 2022.
  • Flowers left at the John W. Harshbarger building where the UA's Hydrology and Atmospheric Sciences was located.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comFlowers left at the John W. Harshbarger building where the UA's Hydrology and Atmospheric Sciences was located.
  • UA President Robbins during a vigil on Oct. 8, 2022.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comUA President Robbins during a vigil on Oct. 8, 2022.
  • UA President Robert C. Robbins presented the PAX Group report during a press conference Monday afternoon.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comUA President Robert C. Robbins presented the PAX Group report during a press conference Monday afternoon.
  • UA Police Chief Balafas speaks to reporters on Oct. 5, 2022.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comUA Police Chief Balafas speaks to reporters on Oct. 5, 2022.
  • Police at the scene of the Oct. 5, 2022 shooting.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comPolice at the scene of the Oct. 5, 2022 shooting.
  • The funeral for Meixner on Oct. 13, 2022.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comThe funeral for Meixner on Oct. 13, 2022.

The University of Arizona had a series of systemic failures, including "missed opportunities and mistakes" that ultimately led to the October fatal shooting of Prof. Thomas Meixner, said UA President Robert C. Robbins.

Robbins made his comments during a Monday press briefing just hours after the UA released a report by consultants hired to review the incident.

During the 36-minute press conference, Robbins said the report "reveals there were systemic issues across our university that should have been identified and corrected."

Meixner's loss "left a permanent hole in the lives of all who loved him" and Robbins said he was saddened for "all those who had to witness this tragic event."

"My second emotion is anger," Robbins said. "At this report reveals there were systemic issues across our university that should have been identified and corrected. I'm angry at myself that I did not do more to prevent this tragedy. And most of all, I'm angry at the man who took from us, our loved one, friend and colleague."

"I'm determined to honor Tom Meixner's legacy by making any and all necessary changes to keep our campus safer," Robbins said.

The report was written by PAX Group, LLC, a consulting firm commissioned to independently review the weeks and months before the Oct. 5, 2022 shooting, as well as the university's response in its aftermath. Written by Phil Andrew, a former special agent with the FBI, the 205-page report outlines how the UA failed to assess and respond to threats from a former graduate student, even as he continually subjected UA faculty and staff to "reprehensible" language and threats.

Meixner, 52, was the head of the Department of Hydrology and Atmospheric Sciences at the UA and known for his work on the water quality of desert rivers.

For months before his killing, UA professors and staff "felt like sitting ducks" in the face of violent threats and a stream of racist, antisemitic and homophobic messages sent by 46-year-old Murad Can Dervish, a former student who was ejected from campus because of his "intimidating" behavior.

Members of the Hydrology Department were increasingly alarmed by the gunman's messages and behavior, and this "should have led to a series of investigative steps," which would have uncovered signs he'd been violent with his parents and harassed a fellow student in California, wrote PAX Group.

Meixner was shot multiple times and died after walking out of a classroom. The gunman fired 11 bullets and quickly fled the scene. Dervish was apprehended hours later, in the desert west of Tucson, and has been charged with murder.

On Friday, lawyers representing Meixner's family filed a notice of claim—a prelude to a lawsuit—with the Arizona Board of Regents, arguing the UA "sacrificed Professor Tom Meixner's life, repeatedly ignoring the clear and present danger of a hostile and dangerous student who openly advertised his intent to murder."

The lawsuit seeks $9 million over what attorneys called "repeated acts and omissions of outrageous callousness and disregard" which allowed "the entirely foreseeable to unfold and occur."

When asked about the claim, Robbins explained the process would go through the board, but called it a "positive step."

The PAX Group made 33 recommendations, which include expanding safety training to individuals and units; installing fire and safety-compliant locks on classroom doors; expanding key-less access to buildings; running criminal background checks on graduate students; and automatically registering all students, faculty, and staff to receive university alerts.

The UA will also enlist former FBI agent Steve Patterson to become an interim chief safety officer, create a commission devoted to campus safety, and create a campus-wide master facility safety plan with the help of PAX Group. Robbins said Patterson has been consulting since October, and in November began running the threat management team.

Robbins' statements came weeks after a faculty committee released a sharply critical report, which found the UA has "established an administrative culture that consciously and consistently disregards employee and students' safety concerns." Robbins scheduled the press conference just 30 minutes before the Faculty Senate was slated to begin their own meeting on the report, including a scheduled meeting with Andrew.

"The murder of Professor Thomas Meixner at the University of Arizona was not a random act of violence, but the deadly conclusion of numerous episodes of harassment, intimidation, and threat from a former graduate student, Murad Dervish, for almost one year," wrote members of the General Faculty Committee on University Safety for All in an interim report.

The UA "suffers from a known trust problem whose causes are diverse," they wrote. "The lack of risk management system, a conscious disregard for violence risks, and the excessive bureaucratization did not establish the trust problem; they have contributed to the problem. In the opposite direction, the trust problem has compromised the University's ability to address violence and violence risks," the group wrote.

The committee noted three other incidents in which the UA failed to deal with harassment, including threats made against a Daily Wildcat reporter after she wrote about a TikTok star on campus and a female law student who faced threats and the distribution of "lewd photos of her that were taken without her knowledge or consent."

Robbins referred to the faculty report, telling reporters he wanted "to recognize the important work that the Faculty Senate committee on safety for all performed and thank them."

"I met with them earlier today, and I apologize for being dismissive and critical of their important work, and their contributions to simply make our campus safer," he said.

While the UA has released the PAX Group report, other parts of the investigation have remained opaque. The UA, including the UA Police Department, has yet to release public records sought by news outlets, including Tucson Sentinel. UA representatives have not responded to numerous requests for records that should be promptly provided under Arizona law.

"We have this report, we have guidelines that can help us go forward, but a report and having a chief security officer is not enough," Robbins said Monday. "We have to all come together and unite and work together to recognize our failures, learn from them, and work together to try to honor Tom's legacy by making the campus safe."

Shooting 'shocking' but 'not unforseeable'

The PAX Group report relied on 79 interviews with 139 students, faculty and staff, as well as more than 1,200 documents, including emails, text messages, legal filings, emergency response plans, and other reports. The group also inspected UA facilities, including classrooms, to generate the report, Robbins said.

"While the tragedy that occurred on October 5, 2022 is shocking and disturbing, it was not unforeseeable," wrote PAX Group noted. "Preventing violence on campus requires deep commitment to a culture of safety, awareness, training, communications and coordination."

Despite enduring a mass shooting 20 years earlier when a nursing student killed three clinical professors before turning the gun on himself, the UA did not fully establish a team devoted to assessing threats or collecting and distributing information.

Robbins said President Peter Likins—who served as UA president from 1997 to 2006—initially set up a threat assessment team, however, the PAX Group found the UA was "not running an effective" team to assess threats in "a way that is viewed as best practices among organizations of its size and scope."

This "ineffective process," the PAX group wrote "led to series of decisions and actions that presented multiple opportunities for [Dervish] to continue to harass and threaten University of Arizona community members." Further, the absence of a threat assessment "placed an undue burden" on administrative offices, including the Dean of Students, the Office of General Counsel and the Hydrology and Atmospheric Sciences Department to make "risk management and law enforcement decisions to prevent violent acts."
"This led to a decentralized and fractured approach to managing the risk, which limited coordination and communication," wrote PAX Group.

The PAX Group was paid $250,000 for the initial investigation, Robbins said.

As early as May 2018, university officials acknowledged the limits of the team and complained it lacked senior leadership and that role was left unfilled through 2022. This informal structure meant it could not push the Pima County Attorney's Office and the Constable's Office into aiding the University. As a consequence, Pima County Constable George Camacho failed to serve Dervish with a court order, and the Pima County Attorney's Office "denied two additional injunction orders, mostly due to, in their review, an insufficient cause."

Pax Group said there were "multiple missed opportunities by University of Arizona Police Department to engage, disrupt, or arrest" Dervish before the shooting, and "there was a lack of coordination among UAPD and regional law enforcement agencies to gather information" and create a "more complete picture of the seriousness of the treat."

A timeline created by the PAX Group showed the UAPD had "at least three key moments" when they could have stopped Dervish: when he was spotted on campus in violation of his February expulsion just hours before the shooting; when he began sending threatening emails and messages; and when he stopped in at the UAPD office to run the license plate for a gold 2000 Pontiac Montana minivan he purchased on Sept. 27, 2022.

Dervish used the Pontiac van to flee from the UA after he shot Meixner, and was intercepted by police on State Route 85, about 30 miles south of Gila Bend. He was driving southbound, and refused to pull over for 2-3 miles as police attempted to stop him "using lights and siren," according to court records.

An officer used a "PIT maneuver," swerving his vehicle into the minivan driven by Dervish's to spin it out and force a crash. 

In the car, he had a second weapon in his vehicle, a .25-caliber Raven Arms handgun—a type of small, cheap "Saturday night special" pistol often referred to as a "Ring of Fire" gun, with a loaded 10-round magazine and another bullet in the chamber, inside a holster stuffed inside the bag in the back of the vehicle. He also had 3 other partially-loaded magazines for the .25-caliber pistol, and a box with 31 rounds of .25 ammunition.

Dervish has been charged with first degree murder, assault with a deadly weapon, burglary, and misconduct with a weapon, and three counts of endangerment. And, he's been held without bond in Pima County since October. His attorney moved to change the venue, sending the case to Maricopa County, but in January a Pima County Superior judge rejected the motion, and Dervish will face a jury trial in Tucson this September.

"Overall, the university's culture of moving from incident to incident, without improving the process to create a clear threat management and investigative strategy, led to missed opportunities for mitigation and intervention," the PAX Group wrote.

"Without a common understanding of the threat posed" the university's police force "made no contact" with Dervish, even when they knew he was home just a few miles from the UA. Further, only once did the UAPD attempt to investigate his background.

As Dervish's threats accelerated, he attempted to purchase a firearm on the website Armslist on March 5.

During his bond hearing, prosecutors presented evidence he frightened the seller of a pistol as they negotiated over the price. Described by prosecutors as "essentially Craigslist for guns" Armslist allows gun sellers to text with buyers. As Dervish haggled over the price, he told the seller "A couple of bucks doesn't really fucking matter at all since I'm just going to use it to kill several people and then myself," Dervish said. The seller stopped speaking to him, and Dervish wrote several days later "just kidding"

Weeks later, Dervish threatened to shoot Meixner, texting him "You are the most disgusting piece of shit I ever met. I hope somebody blows your fucking head off."

By August, Dervish managed to buy two handguns—at least one through a private sale. Officers later found a 9mm handgun in his vehicle "loaded with ammunition consistent with the approx(imately) 11 shell casings found at the murder scene," accordingly to court records.

On April 15, two members of  UAPD went to the gunman's home in "an attempt to charge" him with "two counts of misdemeanor threats and arrest him." However, he refused to open a security door, and the UAPD detective and sergeant decided to let him sign a citation "in lieu of receiving a warrant." While leaving the two police officers were told by a neighbor Tucson Police had a report of a "disturbance" involving him on Feb. 17.

Despite the warnings from police, he continued to message members of the hydrology department, the provost's office, and the dean of students, with "reprehensible racist language, epithets, and what could reasonably be perceived as threats," the Pax Group wrote in the published timeline. 

During the press conference, Robbins said the UA had a threat assessment team, "but I think that we missed some of the important clues about the threats that were being made, in this case as well," he said. "We missed opportunities though to arrest him to try to intervene and mitigate any violence that he was posing to the campus," he said.

Dervish did not have a criminal record, however, he was the subject of a 2020 order of protection in California after a fellow student at San Diego State University alleged he harassed her for nearly two years. SDSU police were actively investigating the gunman in late September and uploaded his threatening emails to two websites available to UAPD. University police knoew about his history by January 2022, however the officers did not share this information with faculty.

The man had reportedly served time behind bars in previous cases, including "pulling a knife on a pizza man" while in college in Pennsylvania years ago. In another incident, the man attempted to strangle his mother with a scarf, leaving scars on her neck, his father told the Sentinel. Another time, Dervish attacked his father with a crowbar, he said.

"He wasn't supposed to have a gun," the elder Dervish said. "I don't know how he got a gun."

Despite these failures, Robbins said he had "confidence in the leadership at UAPD. "In those instances where they missed the opportunity to apprehend the suspect, that is a failure. And I think that going forward, we're going to work on what do we need to do to better follow policies and procedures around who we can arrest when we can arrest them, how we can get charges actually filed?"

"So I think that there there's clearly a lot of room for opportunity for improvement," Robbins said.

Emergency alerts 'misunderstood'

The group also said safety and security training was "inconsistent and, again oftentimes wholly nonexistent across campus."

They also noted emergency alerts were misunderstood or "ignored" by the community, and emergency plans are not practices, nor do units or departments "seem to practice plans (if a plan exists for the unit/department)."

During the press conference, Robbins noted he was traveling on Oct. 5 and because of a glitch, he didn't receive university alerts, even as colleague knew about the warnings from UAPD.

While the UA community was uncertain about the alerts, officials at the nearby Mansfeld Middle School went into "lockdown," keeping kids in the building after the school day ended in response to the shooting.

In a statement to UA employees released before the press conference, Robbins said Meixner will "never be forgotten" and thanked his family for their help. "For those failures, I accept responsibility on behalf of the university and commit — once again — to all of you and to the Meixner family that we will do all that we can to prevent another tragedy."

"The best way to honor his legacy is to make changes, and to deepen our engagement with our work and with one another," he said. "As a community, let us unite together and continue to pray for peace and comfort for Dr. Meixner's wife, Kathleen, and their children, Sean and Brendan, so they may find strength as they grieve his loss and navigate their sorrow."

"The University of Arizona is already safer than it was in October," Robbins told reporters. "And once all the recommendations have been implemented, will be even safer. I'm determined that all that we can reasonably do to prevent another tragedy of life will be done. On behalf of the university. I offer my sincerest apologies for the failures of the institution. And I commit to you today we will do better."

As UA admits failures, prelude to lawsuit filed

Two law-firms, Zwillinger Wulkan and Kuykendall & Associates, filed a notice of claim against the Arizona Board of Regents over what they called a "shameful, pass-the-buck response to repeated violent threats" which "directly led to Dr. Thomas Meixner's tragic murder."

In the legal filing, the two firms—represented by Larry Wulkan and Greg Kuykendall—noted the UA's own Faculty Senate report "recounts repeated missed opportunities to keep its staff and students safe, and the many times it ignored the obvious warning signs that the student planned to fulfill his stated homicidal intentions."

"For over a year, [Dervish] terrorized university personnel with threatening, racist emails, text messages, and public encounters," wrote Wulkan and Kuykendall, adding the messages "include shocking threats of violence and death."

"When faculty presented these instances to the university administration and UAPD, they were met with bureaucratic indifference," they wrote. Despite the overwhelming evidence of the obvious threat, the University of Arizona repeatedly downplayed the significance of the situation and failed to report these incidents to the appropriate authorities."

"The University of Arizona must be held responsible for its track record of deliberate indifference to serious threats of violence," Kuykendall wrote. "In this environment of uncontrolled firearm availability, a University administration must take proactive steps to prevent even more on-campus shootings."

ABOR has 60 days to respond, and Wulkan said the family is "prepared" to file a lawsuit to "seek the full measure of justice for our clients."

Robbins demurred answering specific questions about the potential lawsuit, but said the notice of -claim was part of an important process.

"I think its a positive development in this case," he said, adding this would fall with ABOR and Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes.

— 30 —

Top headlines

Best in Internet Exploder