The Tale of an Ivy-League Hoaxer

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Saed Hindash / The Star - Ledger / Corbis

Holder Tower on Princeton University's campus.

Weeks of death threats appeared to come to grisly fruition on the evening of Dec. 14, when Francisco Nava, 23, a Princeton University junior, arrived at the University Medical Center with his face bruised and bloodied, exhibiting the signs of a concussion. According to the story he told police, Nava, an officer of the Anscombe Society, a prominent conservative social values advocacy group on campus, had been on his way to see a local high school student he mentors when two men, both towering above six feet and dressed in black clothes and ski caps, grabbed him from behind. Holding him against a wall, Nava said, they hit his head repeatedly against the bricks. "Eventually I just blacked out," Nava told the Daily Princetonian. The only catch? The whole story was a hoax.

On Monday Dec. 17, Nava admitted to writing the e-mail threats — "we are watching you all. we will destroy you... you will suffer," he wrote to himself and three other Anscombe members. Another recipient of the message: outspoken conservative politics professor Robert George, a member of President Bush's Council on Bioethics, who had taught Nava in two classes, written him a letter of recommendation and recently agreed to act as his academic adviser. He also confessed to fabricating the assault on himself. He inflicted his own wounds, pummeling himself on the face, scraping his head against a brick wall and breaking a glass bottle over his head. Princeton Township Detective Sergeant Ernie Silagyi, who is investigating the case, cites "underlying personal reasons." But Nava's story also points to similar incidents — mostly attached to heated political debates or controversies — at other campuses.

For example, in 2001, a gay student at the College of New Jersey faked death threats to himself and other members of a pro-gay rights student group. In 2004, a professor at Claremont-McKenna College vandalized her own car and spray-painted it with racist and sexist epithets. Last month, a freshman at George Washington University confessed to drawing swastikas on the door of her own dorm room.

As it turned out as the investigation got under way, Nava himself had been found guilty of fabricating hate speech against himself while at prep school at Groton. That past record would help undo him. But it was not discovered until the hoax had roiled the entire Princeton campus.

The hoax began in the fall when Nava joined the Anscombe Society and began loudly spouting his conservative views. He claimed that soon after he received an anonymous note stuffed into his mailbox in the Frist Campus Center, reading: "YOU HAVE FOUND THE WRONG CAUSE." He told University police that the threat resurfaced after he wrote a November 9th op-ed in the Princetonian decrying the ready availability of condoms on campus. A week later, he said, a third threat appeared in his mailbox. On Dec. 12, five death threats surfaced and Princeton was in an uproar.

The alleged assault was "part of a pattern designed to silence members of our community who speak out against the hookup culture and sexual liberationist ideology," wrote a student columnist, Brandon McGinley. Says Sherif Gergis, a senior and former Anscome president: "We saw conservative bloggers start to capitalize on this, saying, 'Look at the politically motivated indifference.'"

Gergis, who was also one of the e-mail recipients, says he had brushed off the threat until he got a call on Dec. 14 from Prof. George: Nava had been assaulted and was at the University Medical Center. At the hospital, Nava explained his story. "He described to us, in really creepy detail in retrospect, how it supposedly happened," Gergis recalled. "He said, 'Their breath was so distinctive; if I could only smell everybody's breath, I would be able to pick them out.'" George added that they had no reason to doubt Nava's story. Nava, he said, was a residential college adviser, Religious Life Council member and a good student who seemed to be "a person of good character. I had no reason to think otherwise."

But a couple of days later, George, Gergis and the other email recipients learned about the Groton hoax and confronted Nava, who admitted to faking the incident in high school but insisted that this time "was different." Still, the others were stuck on the fact that there were actually two sets of death threats sent on Dec. 12: one caught by the University's spam filter and another, sent successfully, thirty minutes later. "I wondered how the sender would have known that the first message was caught by the filter," Gergis says, "unless he was one of the recipients." On Dec. 17, Detectives Silagyi and Flanders sat Nava down for a second interview to review "inconsistencies" in his story based on their own investigations over the previous few days. This time, Nava cracked.

Now he may face charges of filing a false police report, the equivalent of a misdemeanor, and possible expulsion. Princeton's administration initially came under some criticism for not responding vocally to the incident. Students and professors are now praising the University's measured response. "Princeton's name is not stained in the way that Duke's name is stained because the folks at Duke rushed to conclusions before they had completed the investigation," says George. "We didn't do that." "Our priority," says Cass Cliatt, a University spokesperson, "is to substantiate any reports before determining a course of action, while at the same time recognizing the need to provide support to the members of our community. It's very concerning that a student would fabricate such matters."