UC Davis Bomb Incident: Vigilant Police Work or Overreaction by the UC Davis Police?

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universitycat.pngOn Thursday, Jonathan Raven from the Yolo County District Attorney’s office announced that the Yolo County DA’s Office had declined to file charges against James Marchbanks, a graduate assistant who had allegedly made a bomb threat to his students on the last day of class back in December. 

He cited a lack of evidence to proceed with charges and obtain a conviction.  This ended a long and strange saga that has generated outrage and bewilderment among many on the UC Davis campus and in the community.

Jonathan Raven, assistant chief deputy district attorney said in a statement:

“We don’t feel that we are able to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt at trial.  We just don’t have the evidence.”

Mr. Marchbanks was arrested in early December by UC Davis police after three students had complained that he made a bomb threat in class.  He served four days in jail and faced an $150,000 bail.  At the time of his release, the DA’s office did not file charges pending further investigation.

According to various accounts, the incident happened when Marchbanks was about to hand out teaching evaluations in class.  He pulled out an envelope of forms and said, “I have a bomb.”

Mr. Marchbanks Attorney, Oliver Northup told the Vanguard on Friday,

“This was the last meeting of the quarter, it was a time for student evaluations for the teaching assistant were turned in.  Mr. Marchbanks trying to make a little humor or a little excitement said this would be the last time that he would see them and he had something for them, something along the lines of a bomb.”

Later three students filed the complaint and told the police that a bomb threat had been made.

However, quickly thirteen of the sixteen students signed a letter that claimed that they understood that the incident was a joke and that Mr. Marchbanks was being metaphorical.

Krista Topete was one of those students.

“James Marchbanks walked into class and put his backpack down saying “ This is the bomb” and as soon as he put the backpack down he took out a stack of papers and ran out of the room. I knew it wasn’t a bomb and I‘m pretty sure everyone knew that as well. It was just a joke, a bad one at that but a joke.”

Vanessa Perkins, another student agreed.

“I never felt any kind of threat or any weird vibes from him other than spaciness, so I was really sad that he was in jail under three felony counts for him trying to get on our good side by making light of the TA evaluations.”

Nia Hajnega, yet another student said that the incident was so minor, that she forgot that this had happened until the arrest happened.

“Myself and the majority of drama class has written a letter in which we have signed in retaliation of the charges that were placed on James for something that was just a small, just a really insignificant joke that he that he made in class that should not be blown up this extremities and we personally are offended with the fact that he’s been charged with them.  So we personally are trying to make a difference for him because nobody deserves these charges.”

To her it was clear that this was simply a metaphor and not a threat:

“When he made the correlation between the evaluations and the bomb, he was clearly making a metaphor that these are probably going to bomb his career as a teacher’s assistant because of his lack of communication skills.”

However, UC Davis and the UC Davis Police Department stand behind the arrest.Claudia Morain speaking for the university told the Vanguard on Friday:

“There were three students that reported being very very frightened.  They reported a bomb threat which is a crime, the police acted on the information that they had at the time.  You have to take these kinds of things seriously.”

Lt. Nader Oweis told the Vanguard:

“From the information that we have received at the time, we took that to judicial review to obtain a warrant for his arrest.  So we took the information that we had an obtained an arrest warrant which led to his arrest.”

Did the UC Davis Police Overreact?  James Marchbank’s attorney Oliver Northup found the incident absurd.

“It’s a very strange and absurd story to me and I have a very difficult time understanding why the campus police didn’t see through it.”  He continued, “It wasn’t a terrorist threat at all.”

Mr. Northup has no idea why the police decided to take this case seriously, “to me it’s very puzzling,” he said.  “To an acting class as you can imagine, is the last place in the world where you would think words would be taken as a threat.”

Krista Topete also believed that the incident was overblown by the police.

“Never at any moment did I felt like my life was in danger or that I could be harmed so I was shocked when I heard that James had been arrested. Instead of having our final performance  the rest of my classmates and I had to be personally interviewed by the police.”

However, Claudia Morain told the Vanguard that the University does not believe that the police overreacted in this case.

“There were three students that reported being very very frightened.  They reported a bomb threat which is a crime, the police acted on the information that they had at the time.  You have to take these kinds of things seriously.”

Lt. Nader Oweis reminded the Vanguard that students came and provided us with this information and they acted upon it.

“You have to understand two students within a year or so that explosives in their dormitories.  So just like anybody that would make a complaint about a bomb or some type of explosive device, we’re going to take those reports very seriously.”

Lt. Oweis also reminded us that in obtaining the arrest warrant it had to go to judicial review which provided a measure of oversight and review of the information that they had.

Still, in a case where 13 of the 16 students came forward to dispute the original accounts, one must wonder if that police could have taken the matter seriously while conducting a thorough investigation before perhaps permanently altering the life of a relatively young graduate student.

Krista Topete believes that there was an existing conflict between Mr. Marchbanks and two of the students who complained.

“I feel like the students who came forward with these allegations did so because they personally disliked James. They didn’t agree with the way he taught and the way he ran the class and on several occasions they voiced their dislike of James. There were two students in particular who I feel took James words out of context on purpose and took advantage of the situation.”

Lt. Oweis refused to comment on details of the investigation and Mr. Northup told the Vanguard that he was not aware of any conflicts between Mr. Marchbanks and the students.

“He was doing his best to be a good teaching assistant.”

UC Davis Law Professor Emeritus Marty West has another view of what may have happened.  In a letter to the Davis Enterprise, on December 22, 2009 she wrote:

“This past Friday evening, I found out from a mutual acquaintance that the graduate teaching assistant is African-American. Now, unfortunately, it all makes sense — why everyone overreacted. Even Marcos Breton in the Sacramento Bee on Dec. 13 wondered why there was a “huge overreaction here.” He thought the “subtext” was Virginia Tech in 2007, and that explained why “maybe fear overwhelmed common sense.”

I bet Breton did not know the arrested student was African-American. In none of the articles published by The Davis Enterprise or The Sacramento Bee on this incident was the graduate student’s race mentioned. Why not? Particularly when there has been such a long and sorry history of differential treatment of African-Americans by police, and by the rest of us as well?”

None of the media accounts mentioned the issue of race.

The Enterprise responded to Professor West’s letter:

“The Enterprise did not identify the graduate student’s race because it is our policy to mention race only if it’s relevant, i.e., if police are looking for someone and race is an identifying characteristic.”

The Vanguard inquired about this issue.  Mr. Northup said that he could not comment as to whether the issue of race played a role in the arrest.

Claudia Morain from UC Davis said this was the first that she had heard of the racial issue.

Jonathon Raven from the DA’s office indicated that thee was nothing in the report to indicate that race played a role.

Mr. Northup told the Vanguard that Mr. Marchbanks is not facing any additional academic problems from the university as the result of this incident.  He would not comment on whether Mr. Marchbanks intended to file a civil suit.

Commentary

I think it is at least reasonable to wonder if the police would have given a white student the same treatment they gave Mr. Marchbanks.  There is no concrete evidence that indicates race as the motivation, but still in this day and age, we must at least contemplate the possibility that it did.

From our perspective, this was a very unfortunate incident that probably never should have occurred.  I understand that the UC Davis police had the Virginia Tech incident planted firmly in their minds as well as two other recent incidents involving explosives on campus.  They should take all such reports seriously. 

However, a more thorough investigation would have revealed that 13 of the 16 students in fact did not see this as a threat at all, but an unfortunate joke that was given in poor taste and in bad judgment by a graduate assistant perhaps trying to diffuse tension in his own mind that he might get poor reviews.  That certainly does not rise to the level of three felony charges.

The police also might have noted the statement of Ms. Topete that suggested in fact there might have been a motive for these students to report this incident due to some ongoing tension or dispute.

The fact that police expressed disappointment in one media account indicates perhaps they still do not believe that Mr. Marchbanks was innocent of the charges they attempted to file against him.  That may be the most disturbing aspect of it all in light of the evidence that seems to clearly indicate that this should have been a non-issue.

We are left with one key thought at this point, and that is that one ought to be extremely careful in this climate about making such jokes.  People understand at airports that all jokes are taken seriously and perhaps that ought to be the guiding principle at universities as well.  However, at some point common sense has to enter into the picture and that appears to be what happened with the District Attorney and his decision not to prosecute.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

Vivian Nguyen contributed to this story.

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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2 thoughts on “UC Davis Bomb Incident: Vigilant Police Work or Overreaction by the UC Davis Police?”

  1. Alphonso

    Sounds like it was pretty obvious there was no physical treat – he was arrested for words he used. Given the situation it would have made much more sense to investigate first and consider an arrest later. Bomb threats need to be taken seriously but police need to take their jobs seriously also, they have a responsibilily to think while they investigate. This case sets up the possibility that UCD Police will arrest anybody based on the whatever claims two or three people want to make. They need to consider what is behind the claim. Was there any consideration of the motive behind the original allegations?

    I read somewhere that only one of the three accusers felt frightened and the other two simply confirmed that the words were spoken. It would not have taken long to assemble the entire class and sort out the truth.

    Also the bail was something like $150000 even though it was supposed to be about a third of that. The DA, the Judge and the Police all threw their hands in the air and pointed at each other as they denied knowing the reason for the high bail. Was there ever a reasonable explanation for that? Do any of those people know what they are doing?

  2. Okoro

    Thank you for putting out this article. Marchbanks continues to teach acting classes.This shows the bias that the police had against him. They never heard his side or what he actually said or did. There never was a bomb threat, so the Police reacted to false statements, therefore putting him in Jail for four days. I hope the Davis Police finally understands that people aren’t always the way they seem and that their focus should actually be about finding the truth, before arresting people.

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