A University of Idaho psychology professor and the graduate student he killed before committing suicide this summer both struggled with mental illness, according to newly released documents.
Ernesto Bustamante, an assistant professor, also talked about shooting students in his classroom and was targeted in a complaint alleging he was engaging in “sex orgies” with students, documents revealed.
Bustamante gunned down Katy Benoit, with whom he had an intimate relationship, in front of her Moscow residence on Aug. 22. Police found his body the next day in a nearby hotel.
Benoit, 22, complained to the university’s Office of Human Rights, Access and Inclusion on June 12 that Bustamante had threatened her by holding a gun to her head on three occasions between January and May, after their relationship ended.
University officials have defended their response to Benoit’s complaint, saying they contacted Moscow police immediately after she came forward, and also advised her to take safety precautions and go to police. They told law enforcement that a student had been involved in a domestic violence issue but did not detail Benoit’s allegations, including claims she had been threatened with a gun.
In her interview with Carmen Suarez, of the human rights office, Benoit disclosed that she had struggled with bipolar disorder since she was in fifth grade and that she had “crazy times.” Benoit told Suarez that she felt “she’s awoken from a very crazy time” when she realized her relationship with Bustamante was not healthy.
“Friends encouraged her to come in so it wouldn’t happen to other students,” Suarez wrote in a July 18 email to her co-investigator in the matter, Gary Williams of the English Department.
In a written statement Thursday night, Benoit’s family said, “From time to time, Katy dealt with depression. We do not know if the label of ‘bipolar’ was something Katy believed she had or not. We do know that Katy faced her challenges in life with courage and dignity.”
Benoit said she became intimate with Bustamante, who was her adviser, toward the end of the fall 2010 semester. Benoit said she “screwed up” the consensual relationship with the professor when she stole his medication.
Suarez’s email is part of a batch of 4,200 records the UI released to the news media Wednesday. The Spokesman-Review is part of a coalition of news organizations, including the Lewiston Tribune, the Moscow-Pullman Daily News, the Idaho Statesman and the Associated Press in Boise, that obtained the documents through a public records request.
In a July 8 letter to the human rights office, Bustamante, 31, responded to Katy Benoit’s complaint against him by going on the attack, accusing the student of drug abuse and distribution.
Bustamante said he first met Benoit in his Psychology 218 course in the fall of 2010. “Her performance was outstanding and showed great promise for future work,” he wrote.
In the spring 2011 semester, Bustamante said, he and Benoit became friends.
“I did, however, made it explicit that I was not interested in pursuing any time of romantic involvement,” he wrote.
Soon after, Bustamante wrote, “I realized that Ms. Benoit has had, and continues to have, a history of drug use and distribution.”
He accused her of using marijuana daily and often distributing it and other controlled substances and prescription medications for profit. Bustamante accused her of stealing a bottle of his prescription medication “and even had the audacity to try to sell me some tablets at the black market value.”
After the incident, Bustamante wrote, he told her he could no longer trust her as a friend and that “from then on, our relationship was strictly related to school.”
Bustamante said he was not sure why Benoit “made such outrageous allegations against him” and denied sexually harassing or threatening her.
Reacting Thursday to the revelations, Benoit’s family stated, “The murderer’s allegations that Katy sold drugs are 100 percent false.” They acknowledged she used marijuana and said they were aware Benoit had been charged with misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia last year. She pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of disturbing the peace, according to records.
Bustamante, who had been known to alternately refer to himself as a “psychopathic killer” and “the beast,” told his department chairman, Kenneth Locke, shortly after he was hired in 2007 that he took medication for bipolar disorder. That fall semester, students complained to Locke that Bustamante was “flirtatious” and showed favoritism to certain students.
In an April 30 email, Bustamante, who also reportedly had multiple personality disorder, admitted to Locke that he was concerned about his mental state. He wrote, “I’m going through major withdrawals due to a lack of my main medication, and I’m struggling to even type this email.”
Locke responded on May 1 that he assumed Bustamante had contacted his doctor and that he would have more medication soon.
On July 14, Suarez, of the human rights office, wrote Bustamante in advance of his July 19 meeting with her and Williams. In the email, Suarez tells Bustamante not to wear a jacket or bring any bags in which a weapon could be concealed.
At the meeting, Bustamante admitted to a sexual relationship with Benoit, as well as other students, according to notes by Suarez. He also denied threatening Benoit.
But other documents, including evaluations of Bustamante by other students, show that his behavior was erratic and that he had discussed shooting students.
“He talked about shooting students, which was disturbing, and implied that he was (and we should be) drunk and high every other day,” said one student, who is not identified in the teaching evaluations.
The university acknowledged that certain items in the documents, including this student’s comment, were troublesome in hindsight.
“In this case, the department chair did discuss with Bustamante his concerns regarding comments he had received from students about his classroom behavior,” the university said in a statement.
In December 2010, a caller to the university hotline accused Bustamante of having sex with students and coercing one into having sex with him and others.
Bustamante denied those allegations.
University officials told the AP they did not tell police that Benoit said she had been threatened at gunpoint because she “did not want us to discuss the allegations in her complaint with police and we honored her wishes.”
Bustamante resigned Aug. 19. Included in the documents was a “release of claims agreement” in which the university agreed to dismiss its investigation of Bustamante in exchange for his resignation.
Three days later, Bustamante shot Benoit nearly a dozen times, then committed suicide in a hotel room.
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