Metropolis: Wednesday, September 24, 2003
Crash Course in American Culture

Two Russian exchange students looking for a rock-climbing wall ran into post-9/11 wariness instead.


Two foreign exchange students who rode their bicycles onto a restricted police parking lot in Arlington on Sept. 6 are receiving some real-life lessons regarding trespassing laws, the mistrust that still lingers two years after the 9/11 bombings, and the impact of lawyers and news media in American life.

In a way, it’s why they’re here. Pavel Lachko and Boris Avdeev came to Arlington five weeks ago as part of the Russian Young Leadership Fellows for Public Service Program, which teaches foreign exchange students about the institutions upon which civil society is based in the United States.

They are learning a lesson about one institution in particular — the Arlington Police Department — although they would have preferred to gain their knowledge through a textbook or field trip. Instead they were arrested for criminal trespassing, handcuffed, searched, fingerprinted, jailed, and interrogated by a National Homeland Security Agency investigator. Criminal trespassing is a Class B misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of six months in jail and up to $2,000 in fines. The students live on stipends and have little extra money for bail money or fines.

“I’m like a blind man here,” Lachko said. “I don’t know what to do.”

Arlington police have referred the case to the Tarrant County district attorney’s office. “We’re finished with it,” Police Sgt. Will Johnson said. “The violation occurred, an arrest was made, and the D.A. has the case to determine the most appropriate response at this juncture.”

On Monday, the D.A.’s office had not yet reviewed the case, and prosecutors would not say whether charges would be filed. Perhaps the Russians will learn of American traits such as compassion and rationality, or discover court options such as deferred adjudication to keep a record clean. Maybe they’ll find out about zero tolerance, and if you do the crime you do the time. Regardless, the outcome isn’t expected to re-ignite the Cold War, but it provides insight into post-9/11 America.

Lachko, a business administration graduate student, and his roommate, Avdeev, a geology graduate student, were riding bicycles on Front Street near downtown Arlington, looking for a gym that provides rock-climbing lessons. Front Street dead-ends into a parking lot behind the Arlington Police Department. Lachko and Avdeev saw the tall brick building and wondered if it was the gym.

“It didn’t look like a jail,” Lachko said. “In Russia, the jails are surrounded by fences with barbed wire.”

They pedaled past a barrier and a sign that threatens trespassers with arrest and prosecution, and entered the parking lot used by police officers. From that point, the story gets a little sticky.

A police officer said he approached them and asked what they were doing in a restricted area. Lachko and Avdeev, however, said it was they who approached the police officer. “We ride on the backside of the jail accidentally,” Avdeev said. “At the time we didn’t know it was a jail. We were looking for a building, a climbing gym. We ride into an area separated by a small barrier. We saw a police officer and decided to ask him for directions. He was surprised and told us it was a prohibited area.”

Avdeev and Lachko are both 22 and Russian natives, but their looks and personalities differ. Dark-haired Avdeev appears younger than his age, smiles often, and is laid back. Lachko has sandy blond hair and a more intense nature.

The police officer asked for identification, but the two students carried only their school identification cards. The passports and legal immigrant cards that federal law requires them to carry had been left behind in their rented house on nearby Pecan Street. The university’s computer system was down, and police were unable to verify their student status. Police aren’t in the habit of driving to someone’s house to retrieve documents, just as they wouldn’t follow an American citizen home to allow him to get a driver’s license or proof of insurance.

Another police officer arrived, made a radio call, and referred to the students as “two Pakistanians,” Lachko said. He corrected the officer. “I said, ‘No we are not Pakistani; we are from Russia.’ ”

So, five days before the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist bombings, police were looking at two young men with heavy accents, caught in a restricted area without required identification, and claiming they were looking for a rock-climbing gym. “It did not seem like a plausible explanation to the officers investigating the incident,” Johnson said.

Police called Senior Patrol Agent Terry Newman of the U.S. Border Patrol’s homeland security division in Dallas. He interviewed the students, researched their backgrounds, and determined they had come to the Unites States legally. He would not discuss the investigation with the Weekly, but when asked if his investigation cleared the youths, he said, “Let’s put it this way, I didn’t put a detainer on them, and I’m not going to deport them.”

The incident might have been resolved quietly in court. “I think they would have gotten off, but that’s just me,” Newman said. However, word of the arrest spread on campus, and someone, fearing the students’ rights were being violated, started calling reporters. The Russian students agreed to an interview with the University of Texas at Arlington’s student newspaper, The Shorthorn, which published articles on Sept. 16 and 17. Afterward, they gave interviews to daily and alternative weekly newspapers.

A college professor described the situation to friends at the Kiwanis Club, and the organization raised money for an attorney. The attorney, James Kennedy, is “trying to make an international incident out of it, and that’s just going to make the kids look bad,” Newman said. “They’re making a mountain out of a molehill, and it doesn’t need to be that way.”

By Sept. 18, the Russian students, unnerved by the attention, had clammed up, refusing to talk to any more reporters. Lachko, who had spent an afternoon talking to the Weekly on Sept. 15, was more reticent three days later. He said he wanted no more stories published. “I don’t want to have more problems than I’ve already got,” he said.

Each student posted a $750 bond, and they are worried about future fines. Or jail. Or deportation. Or having their careers sidetracked and reputations tainted. Lachko said he hopes to return to Russia next summer and find a job at an American company’s foreign headquarters. “If I like to work for a foreign company in Russia, say a General Motors company in Moscow, I guess it could have consequences for me,” he said. “I’d rather work for a foreign company in Russia. Foreign companies pay much more, and it’s much more prestigious to work there.”

If they decide to return to the United States, they worry about answering a question on the visa application that asks if they have ever been arrested. Newman said a single criminal trespassing conviction won’t get them deported and probably wouldn’t prevent their return, “as long as they don’t lie about it,” he said.

“It’s considered fraud if you don’t tell the truth,” he said. “As far as kicking someone out of this country for criminal trespass, nah.”

Johnson, the police spokesman, said neither media reports, attorney involvement, nor the nationality of the students will affect the way that the case is prosecuted, but he doesn’t know what will happen. The case could be taken to trial, the students could accept a plea bargain, or charges could be dropped.

Before 9/11, the incident might have been written off as a couple of bumbling foreign students making a mistake, and ended with police giving a stern warning and sending them on their way. “They told us about 9/11 and said it was not normal behavior for police to arrest in this situation, but because of 9/11 the rules are more strict now,” Avdeev said.

Police agree that heightened security concerns even two years after 9/11 shaded their handling of the incident. Police records show no similar arrests in the parking lot, in years leading up to 9/11. Since then, however, four people have been arrested in three separate incidents in the parking lot. “Society in post-9/11 clearly demonstrated the need to have a heightened sense of awareness about homeland security issues,” Johnson said. “One of those issues is security of government buildings and public utility installations.”

UT-Arlington Professor Charles McDowell, who teaches Russian, said the students were selected for the program by the U.S. State Department from hundreds of applicants, based on their excellent educational records in Russia. The students made a mistake, but not one that should lead to jail time or cause them permanent problems, he said. “These guys thought that barrier was just to prevent cars from going through there and parking; as international students they weren’t aware of all of our cultural differences here,” he said.

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