U. Florida cops ask fiction writer for fingerprints, DNA

The university police at Gainesville's University of Florida have targeted a graduate student in the English program over his publication of a piece of horror fiction on his LiveJournal. The police have repeatedly visited the student and demanded that he submit his fingerprints and DNA to them so that they can compare the fictional murder he described in his story to evidence from any similar unsolved murders.

Philip Sandifer is a graduate student in U. Fla's English program, and keeps a personal creative writing journal called "Pulp Decameron," where he posts very short stories in the styles of various pulp genres. The stories are released under a Creative Commons license. One story, I am Ready to Serve My Country, is a first-person account of a murderer who executes two victims before applying to the military.

On May 12, detective Sanders of the University of Florida police left him a voicemail asking him to contact her. This began a series of meetings and calls with the University Police in which detectives repeatedly pressured him to allow them to fingerprint him, so that they could compare his prints to evidence from unsolved murders. They cited his publication of the horror fiction as the reason.

I spotted the story on Sandifer's LiveJournal last week and rang the university police. I spoke to Detective Sanders, but she declined to give any comment on the case, referring me to Lt. Sharkey, the Department's press-relations officer. I left several messages for Lt. Sharkey, without receiving a call back.

However, on May 18, Sandifer posted an update to his LiveJournal, stating that the police had met with him and his faculty advisors, Kenneth Kidd and Sid Dobrin, and the police had told him that "a journalist from the UK" was asking about his story. They advised him that he'd better turn over his DNA and fingerprints before the story broke. They also questioned Sandifer's advisors as to whether their students should be writing material like Sandifer's.

I called the University's PR department and spoke with Steve Orlando, who said that he'd spoken with Detective Sergeant Eptel, who had denied asking for fingerprints, and denied questioning the academic merit of Sandifer's work. Orlando admitted that it was untoward that the police would refuse to speak to me.

He also understood my concern that the police were using the fact that I was calling to lean on Sandifer.

He noted that five students were murdered off-campus ten years before, making murder a touchy subject around the university, and stated that the police had to do their job to keep the students safe.

I subsequently spoke with Sandifer and his advisor, Professor Dobrin, both of whom affirmed that the police — in the person of Dt. Sgt Eptel — had repeatedly asked for fingerprints and had questioned the appropriateness of student fiction dealing with murder.

Professor Dobrin was spirited in his condemnation of the police story: "That's bullshit. They certainly did ask him for his fingerprints. They wanted to force him into giving his fingerprints and even DNA evidence and repeatedly told him how inappropriate his story was. They threatened him, they said if he didn't give them fingerprints, they'd go through his garbage until they found his DNA.

"The Dean of Students' explanation was that the police needed to look into it, but they looked into it inappropriately. Sure, investigate a complaint, but the university police shouldn't try to play FBI."

The university police are under the direction of the university with the powers of a municipal police force. They act on behalf of the university.

"I told them flat out, if you pursue this any further, I will guarantee you more than 200 other stories written by students and faculty that are a lot more violent than this, starting with mine."

Sandifer is also an avid Wikipedia editor and has had spirited disputes with other Wikipedians over the proper editing of pieces. On a message board for disgruntled Wikipedians, his opponents discussed sending the story to the University administration or police, noting "it wouldn't take much to put him in a position where he either decides to leave Wikipedia or decides that he doesn't need a Ph.D. after all."

That seems like the kind of thing that real police detectives might take into consideration before diverting resources into investigating fiction writers. If they're going to look into every fiction writer who describes a murder, they've got a busy year ahead of them. Florida writers like Joe Haldeman (a resident of Gainesville) Dave Barry and Carl Hiaassen — and the great, departed John D MacDonald — document murders in great plenty in the pages of their books.

I think the University of Florida's "detectives" are going to need a bigger budget.

(Thanks, Eric!)