The Night Unfolds
At approximately 12:30 a.m. on Sunday, May 3, 1998, two police officers (one from WSU and one from Pullman) responded to a report (possibly false) of a car-pedestrian accident at the intersection of Colorado and A streets in Pullman. This intersection is located in the College Hill area of Pullman just west of the Washington State University campus. When the police officers arrived, students attending a nearby keg party pelted them with rocks and beer cans. The police officers retreated and called for backup.
Party-goers then threw garbage, construction materials, and portable toilets into the street and lit bonfires with this material. The size of the crowd grew. Although no more than 200 people were believed to have actively participated in the riot, the crowd of onlookers was considerably larger. Most reports estimated the size of the crowd at about 500 people, though a few estimates claimed the crowd size may have reached 2,000. Whatever the actual number of those present, it represented a small fraction of WSU's 1998 student population of approximately 17,000.
Police initially stayed away from the scene, "giving the party a chance to cool on its own" (Lewiston Tribune), according to Pullman Police Chief Ted Weatherly. When that failed to occur, police moved back into the area at approximately 2 a.m. Eventually 47 Whitman County officers, 18 Washington state troopers, 18 Moscow, Idaho, officers and 10 officers from Latah County, Idaho, responded to the riot.
Police attempted to disperse the crowd with tear gas, smoke, and water. This had the effect of diverting the crowd behind the officers. The crowd then attacked the officers from all sides for two hours with rocks, beer bottles, signposts, chairs, and pieces of concrete, allegedly cheering whenever an officer was struck and injured. Twenty-three officers were injured, some suffering concussions and broken bones. Reports of students and onlookers injured ranged from four to 12. Three people were arrested during the melee.
The crowd finally dispersed at about 5:30 a.m. as dawn broke in Pullman. Property damage from the riot was estimated at $15,000.
Booze the Cause?
The riot was allegedly spawned by WSU's policy against on-campus drinking, which prohibited alcohol at fraternity parties, although alcohol was allowed in private rooms where the occupants were of legal drinking age.
WSU President Samuel H. Smith (b. 1940) was criticized for what some believed was an attempt by campus administrators to downplay the seriousness of the riot. In particular, a press release titled "All-Night Street Party Dispersed Peacefully," issued late on the morning of May 3 by WSU's News and Information Services Director Barbara Petura, sparked considerable controversy. Petura later conceded that the word "peacefully" was inaccurate. Smith, however, defended the release, saying "The intent was to be accurate and not blow the incident out of proportion" (Lewiston Tribune).
Considerable video footage and many still photographs were taken of the riot. In the days immediately following, some of these pictures were posted in the student newspaper, The Daily Evergreen. The Pullman police subsequently received numerous phone calls from students and others identifying rioters shown in the pictures. This resulted in a number of arrests and helped WSU to implement its own investigation and disciplinary action.
WSU investigated 51 students for their role in the riot, and held conduct hearings for 43 of these students. As a result of the hearings, WSU expelled three students and suspended six.
A WSU investigation also found that Kappa Sigma and Phi Kappa Tau organized the May 2-3 keg party, which was the nexus of the riot. Another fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, was found to have contributed kegs to the party, although it was not involved in organizing the party. In August 1998 these three fraternities were fined by WSU, ordered to perform community service and placed on probation for one year for their roles in the party.
Twenty-two felony charges were eventually filed against approximately 15 rioters, 12 of whom were WSU students. Many of the felony charges were subsequently reduced to gross misdemeanors charges in exchange for plea bargains by the perpetrators, resulting in 19 convictions. One of the harshest sentences handed down was a nine-month jail stint to one defendant. Many other defendants received 90 days or fewer in jail. Most defendants were ordered to pay restitution as well as court fines, totaling nearly $25,000.
Pullman police were guarded when the college year resumed in August 1998 after the summer break. Initially police used small video cameras with infrared technology to document activity at what they felt were problem areas. In February 1999 police tried a different approach and assigned two police officers exclusively to the College Hill beat in an effort to foster better relations and understanding between the police and WSU students.
Plea-bargaining and trials continued in the criminal cases until the final trial (which resulted in an acquittal) concluded in October 1999.
Samuel Smith retired in June 2000 after serving as Washington State University's president for 15 years.