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Professor admits to killing

EVAN CARAVELLI/Arizona Daily Wildcat
Robert Bechtel, left, a UA psychology professor, announced to his class and the world Tuesday night that 50 years ago he killed a fellow college student in Swarthmore, PA.
By Jesse Lewis
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday, November 18, 2004
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Psych. professor divulges that he killed dorm-mate in 1955

After keeping it private for 50 years, a UA psychology professor admitted to his classes Tuesday he killed another student when he was in college.

Robert Bechtel, professor of environmental psychology, told his two classes that after a life of being bullied, he snapped when he was a 22-year-old college junior and killed a student in his residence hall Jan. 12, 1955.

Bechtel is the subject of an independent documentary being filmed on campus and decided to go public with the information this week after keeping it secret for almost 50 years.

"There was a wide range of reaction: Most people were thoroughly shocked, a lot came up to me after and thanked me, others said they had been bullied," said Bechtel of his classes' reactions.

Bechtel met with UA President Peter Likins and Alfred Kaszniak, head of the psychology department, to get permission for the film crew before he told his classes and to tell his story. He said Likins gave him his blessing.

Bechtel said he had been bullied from the time he was 4 years old until he was in college. His residents bullied him when he was a proctor, or a resident assistant, at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania in fall 1954.

"They would pull my bed into the hall and urinate on it and tell everyone," Bechtel said.

The bullies moved his bed outside of the residence hall and into the quad and urinated on it.

Bechtel also heard a chorus of "Bechtel will eat shit" as he moved through each of the three floors of the hall, he said.

He also said he would be hit and kicked often and always with a crowd of people around to see his mistreatment.

Over the years the bullying built up and Bechtel said he couldn't deal with it any longer. He went home for winter break and obtained two guns with the intent to cease the bullying by killing his tormentors, Bechtel said.

"I was going to stop it all by shooting up the whole place," Bechtel said.

After shooting and killing one student, he said "the feeling dissolved" and he stopped. He turned himself in to police later that day, Bechtel said.

"(I wanted to) blow away the whole dorm, but only shot one person," Bechtel said.

He was put on death row for a few months and was admitted to Fairview State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in April 1955, where he stayed for almost five years, Bechtel said.

"I had an epiphany about heaven and hell: People in heaven help each other," Bechtel said.

He realized he could have a meaningful life if he could help other people, and he started a school in the hospital teaching patients math, English and geography.

When officials at the hospital saw he had insight, they decided he was ready to be released.

Bechtel was sent to county prison, and at his Jan. 6, 1960, trial he was found not guilty by reason of insanity and was released.

After the trial he worked and returned to school at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania studying psychology, which he had been studying before the incident at Swarthmore.

In 1976, Bechtel and his wife moved to Arizona, and he began teaching psychology at the UA. Bechtel received tenure his first year here.

Their daughter graduated from the UA in 2001, and he said he told her his story when she was 19.

"It wasn't something I could incorporate - he is a very loving father," said Carrah Bechtel, Robert Bechtel's daughter.

She said when she heard the story it was like it was a story about someone else. She said it was awful, and said she was very direct with her father about her feelings.

She said she thinks sometimes it is unfair that it affects her too, but she is glad she knows the truth.

Carrah Bechtel approached Macky Alston, an independent filmmaker, in New York City and expressed interest in working with him to tell her father's story.

"I think we have a normal relationship with extraordinary circumstances, but it had to be told," Carrah Bechtel said. "I don't want to not be there for him."

Both Carrah and her mother were present when Bechtel told his 8 a.m. Environmental Psychology class and noon Psychology of Happiness class Tuesday.

"When he first said it, we all thought he was joking. ... It was kind of shocking," said Paula Spicerkuhn, a psychology junior and student in his 8 a.m. class.

Spicerkuhn said others in the class reacted the same way and understood it had happened, but also that it has been a long time, she said.

"It seems like he's moved past it. People can learn a lot from him," Spicerkuhn said.

Robert Bechtel held an extra session in the Manuel T. Pacheco Integrated Learning Center at 6 p.m. Tuesday for his students to come and talk to him and asked questions about it.

Deanna Ortiz, a psychology junior and student in his 8 a.m. class, said she was grateful her professor shared such a personal part of his life. She said his experience is a wake-up call to what is really going on around her every day.

"In a way we are all murderers - we kill people with our words and actions by gossiping and such," Ortiz said.

Ortiz said she thinks students will look at him differently, but it's important to see he is a human being who made a mistake.

"It made me realize how ignorant I was before he shared," Ortiz said. "It will help us realize all we do can really have a negative effect on others."

The purpose of the documentary is to inform others of the repercussions of bullying. Carrah and Robert Bechtel said they want to make people aware that bullying is not something that stops after elementary school.

Alston said the documentary will follow Robert Bechtel as he tells his story.

"(We are) following Bechtel ... as they go public with it ... the themes of experiencing that and then having this incredible second chapter of his life after everybody thought it was over for him," Alston said.

Kristin Maynard, a psychology senior and student in Robert Bechtel's 8 a.m. class, said she is nervous about the widespread reaction the documentary may ignite. She said many of the people she has told since Tuesday have not been able to see the positive side of his disclosure.

"It's easier to say, 'Wow, that's a bad person,' rather than listen. Obviously it's hard to be sympathetic, but to see what else he's done with his life, it's amazing," Maynard said.

Maynard said she thinks the documentary will show Robert Bechtel's situation was preventable.

Maynard said it's important for people to understand he was a victim as were the shooters involved in the Columbine High School, Colo., shootings in 1999.

Bechtel said after the Columbine shootings he realized how familiar those students' story was, and when people were trying to figure out why it happened, he said he knew it was because of bullying. Later, investigations confirmed his suspicions.

"(After Columbine) my thought was, 'Here we go again.' We have to get into a state where we have every school teaching kids how to get along with each other," Bechtel said.

Bechtel and his daughter have written a book about his life, "Redemption," and are hoping to publish it and release the documentary in 2006.

Andrea Kelly contributed to this report.

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