USC faculty and students rally behind guard charged with theft

On several floors of the Seeley G. Mudd building on the USC campus, Francisca Trigueros was a known and trusted face. The 61-year-old caretaker had been cleaning bathrooms, classrooms, labs and offices there for more than two decades, and went by his first name to many of the psychology professors and staff who worked there.

So when news broke that Trigueros had been suspended and arrested for allegedly stealing a student’s backpack with money in it, many of those same faculty members came to his defense – demanding that the university is investigating what they believe was a wrongful arrest on campus based on a “simple misunderstanding.”

Trigueros, they believed, would not have done what she was accused of doing.

“Thinking back to decades past, we gave her cameras, tablets, research equipment,” said Darby Saxbe, an associate professor of psychology at the university since 2010. lost; she always gave them back. … If she was really looking to start a life of crime, she could have taken advantage of it in so many ways.

Psychology professors, department staff, and students have since penned an impassioned open letter attesting to Trigueros’ integrity and offering their own account of the incident based on a conversation between Trigueros and Melissa Reyes, a lab manager at the department. In this version of events, Trigueros had tried to return the backpack but, unable to find any personnel to give it to, she placed it in a closet for safekeeping.

Community members also raised thousands of dollars online to help Trigueros make ends meet after he was fired.

The response has thrown a huge spotlight on what now appears to be a case of minor theft. Police said prosecutors with the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office declined to press felony charges and referred the case to the City Atty. Mike Feuer’s office, although Feuer’s office said it had not yet received the file.

Tigueros’ lawyer, Rana Parsanj, declined to comment on Friday, citing possible charges still pending., and would not make Trigueros available to answer questions.

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However, on Friday, those involved in the arrest and firing of Trigueros were not backing down.

Capt. Kelly Muniz, spokesperson for the Los Angeles Police Department, said LAPD detectives — who investigate all potential crimes on campus — reviewed surveillance footage of the incident, determined that Trigueros had committed a criminal theft and presented the case to prosecutors for review.

Muniz would not say what was captured on the video or provide further details about the LAPD investigation, citing the ongoing case. Police have not disclosed what happened to the backpack.

Lauren Bartlett, a USC spokeswoman, said the university followed standard procedures in calling the LAPD and turning over the surveillance video, and is “fully cooperating” with the investigation.

Neither the police nor the university would share the video with The Times. Trigueros’ arrest was first reported by USC Annenberg Media.

Trigueros was not an employee of USC. She worked for Aramark, a food service and facilities company that contracts with the university. The company defended his dismissal.

“After an investigation involving the police and our human resources team, the individual in question has violated our lost and found policies and is no longer with the company,” said Aramark spokesperson Chris. Collom, in an email. Collom did not provide Aramark’s lost and found policy when asked.

For USC professors who knew Trigueros, the university’s handling of the situation was frustrating.

The day after his arrest, Trigueros contacted Reyes and explained to him what had happened, Reyes said. The two had become friends over the years. Reyes said she then forwarded Trigueros’ story to the department.

As Reyes said, Trigueros was cleaning a general-purpose classroom on March 10, the Thursday before USC’s weeklong spring break, when she found a backpack containing “a sum of ‘substantial money’.

Reyes said Trigueros tried to hand over the backpack to reception, which is common practice, but no one was there. So instead, she put the backpack in a locked supply closet.

On March 15, Trigueros was confronted by USC Public Safety Department officers and her manager, who had seen surveillance video of Trigueros taking the backpack, Reyes said. Trigueros was then interrogated, suspended from her job and arrested.

Reyes and other professors said that, based on this description of events, Trigueros had done nothing wrong. “At the time of the arrest, the backpack and all of its contents were still locked,” the open letter read.

“Within the Department of Psychology, lost items are generally returned to the administrative assistant in the department’s main office,” the open letter from faculty and students reads. “Francisca was immediately suspended without pay and prevented from taking personal days to recover lost earnings. She has since been fired for her good faith efforts to protect a student’s missing property.

The letter, which had garnered more than 10,000 signatures on Friday, also asked whether a tenured professor would have received the same treatment as Trigueros and whether being charged with a crime justified her firing. He called on the university to reinstate Trigueros as an employee and to “protect its faculty, staff, students and contractors from wrongful arrest on campus.”

Leslie Berntsen, a lecturer in the Department of Psychology, said it was “encouraging to know that so many people share our department’s concerns and want to express their support for Francisca.”

Stephen Boardman, director of communications for SEIU United Service Workers West, which represents guards who work for Aramark on campus, said Trigueros was filing a grievance after being fired by the company.

“While we are still in the process of gathering facts, we have serious concerns about how this investigation has proceeded from the start,” Boardman said. “We believe that all workers should be afforded dignity, respect and due process and we will continue to support Francisca until this is resolved.”

USC custodians are in the midst of contract negotiations with Aramark. On Thursday afternoon, they rallied on campus to demand higher salaries and benefits from Aramark with the support of the university community.

Eduarda, a USC guard who declined to give her last name, said she heard about Trigueros’ arrest but did not know she had been fired. She said it’s not uncommon for caretakers to find valuables while they’re cleaning – twice she found phones and kept them to try and contact the owners. A student to whom she returned a phone gave her a small gift as a thank you.

Eduarda said that according to company policy, guards who find items must turn them over to their supervisors. But sometimes supervisors don’t respond to calls, she said, and choose to leave things in place or try to find the owner, as she has done in the past.

USC freshman Daniel Chung, who joined the Guardians in their rally, said he signed the petition in support of Trigueros and saw a connection between his treatment and the larger struggle for better wages. Both, he said, reflect injustices at USC.

Times researcher Scott Wilson contributed to this report.




Los Angeles Times

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