LOS ANGELES, Aug. 22 (JTA) — A California jury found a psychology professor guilty of perpetrating a hate crime hoax by vandalizing her own car with racist and anti-Semitic graffiti. On Aug. 19, a Los Angeles County Superior Court jury in Pomona found Kerri Dunn, then an assistant visiting professor at Claremont McKenna College, guilty of filing a false police report and attempted insurance fraud, which is punishable by up to three-and-a-half years in prison. When the apparent hate crime was initially reported on March 9, the Claremont McKenna campus and Jewish communities reacted with outrage, staging day-long sit-ins, teach-ins, forums and rallies. Dunn reported that her car had been vandalized after she had given a lecture on racism. The car’s tires had been slashed and its windows broken, and the words “Kike Whore,” “Nigger Lover,” “Bitch” and “Shut Up,” as well as a half-finished swastika, were painted on the vehicle. Dunn also told police that $1,700 worth of personal property had been stolen from the car. In initial news stories, Dunn, a 39-year-old white woman, was said to be converting from Catholicism to Judaism. As time went on, this aspect became increasingly vague, changing from “undergoing conversion” to “considering conversion” to “a possibility of conversion.” “No one seems to have any first-hand knowledge of this matter,” said Claremont professor Jack Schuster, a faculty leader on the Hillel Council for the school, located east of Los Angeles. The day following the incident, classes were canceled in deference to anti-racism and pro-diversity demonstrations on campus and at the other six private colleges and universities that make up the Claremont Colleges consortium. The regional chapter of the Anti-Defamation League contacted Claremont officials and the school’s Jewish community to offer counsel and assistance. Rabbi Leslie Bergson, the Jewish chaplain and Hillel Director for the Claremont Colleges, reported that many hitherto indifferent Jewish students had shown up at Hillel and that the near-dormant Jewish Student Union was planning new activities. One week later, during a campus vacation break, came another bombshell. Claremont police announced that two witnesses had “positively identified the victim as vandalizing her own vehicle. Additionally, interviews with the alleged victim revealed inconsistencies in her statements regarding the incident.” The FBI and the county district attorney entered the case, while Dunn consistently denied the police charges. During the trial, the jury was not asked to decided whether Dunn had vandalized her own car, but rather if she had filed false reports with the police and her insurance company. After the guilty verdict, Gary Lincenberg, Dunn’s attorney, said that he intended to appeal the verdict because the judge had barred crucial evidence. Sentencing is set for Sept. 17. As student president of the Hillel Council, D’ror Chankin-Gould, 20, had been one of the organizers of the early anti-racism protests. Dunn’s conviction, he said, “doesn’t change the fact that we did the right thing. We responded vigorously to an anti-Semitic slur and we can be proud of that.” Amanda Susskind, the regional ADL director, noted that “Fake hate crimes undercut what we do, they represent a kind of secondary victimization. We did get some letters saying, ‘You Jews made it all up.’ “But did we overreact? No, we had to react. And we are pleased that law enforcement took this very seriously, first after the incident itself and then in prosecuting Dunn.”
Tom Tugend is JTA's Los Angeles correspondent. A veteran journalist, he also writes for the Jerusalem Post, the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and the London Jewish Chronicle.