Bizarre coincidence fuels graduate student’s quest for redemption
Howard Zochlinski has a story to tell, and he does it with the air of a drowning man—desperately, to anyone who will listen.
There are those who see him as a victim of gross injustice, and others who insist he is mentally unstable, even dangerous. By his own admission, Zochlinski’s life sounds like something lifted from a bad soap opera, crazy at worst and improbable at best.
During his undergraduate days as an anti-Vietnam War activist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Zochlinski underwent a series of arrests and dropped charges that he says ruined his life. Years after those events, enrolled as a doctoral student in genetics at UC Davis, Zochlinski was arrested by the same policeman who had arrested him 20 years earlier, again on charges that didn’t stick.
The unlikely meeting set in motion an eerily familiar chain of events that has, to this day, left Zochlinski unemployed, disillusioned and angry. And it is that anger that has further fueled his problems, scaring those who might help him and making Zochlinski somewhat of a pariah on campus.
The former graduate student has tried unsuccessfully to sue the University of California for the last eight years. He has written letters stating his case to the media, civil rights groups, the Department of Education, politicians and many others. He has maintained throughout that UC embarked on a campaign of harassment against him and conspired in his wrongful arrest and prosecution, not only violating his civil rights but also ultimately denying him his Ph.D.
“I want my life back,” said Zochlinski, who still resides in Davis. “After all the things they’ve done to me, I won’t stop until I get some justice.”
Zochlinski’s story begins nearly 30 years ago in June 1972, when UCSB police arrested him—then a 19-year-old student—for burglary. A few days later, he was arrested again for petty theft. A third arrest occurred about two weeks later, this time for making threatening phone calls to an acquaintance.
Within the span of one month, Zochlinski had been arrested and jailed three times. The first two charges were subsequently dropped by the prosecutor for lack of evidence, and the third was thrown out in court.
Police reports show that all three arrests were made by the same two officers, either John Jones or his partner John MacPherson. In documents filed with Yolo County Superior Court, Zochlinski accuses the two officers of arresting him on trumped-up charges as punishment for his anti-war activism. Furthermore, Zochlinski said he was raped in the Santa Barbara county jail, something he alleges was set up by Jones.
After what happened at UCSB, Zochlinski transferred to Berkeley where he received his bachelor’s degree in 1976. He went on to earn two master’s degrees: one at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in 1979, and another at Johns Hopkins University three years later. In 1984, he arrived at UC Davis and began working toward his Ph.D. Coincidentally, Jones had also transferred to the UCD Police Department in 1977.
Oddly enough, two decades after the incidents in Santa Barbara, Jones once again arrested Zochlinski, this time for allegedly stalking a former acquaintance. Zochlinski asserts in 1994 court filings that this arrest was based on a false charge of stalking motivated by long-standing hostility.
“Jones’ extraordinary efforts in securing [my] arrest on November 19, 1992 are based solely on the malice derived from the vendetta he has held against [me] for over 20 years and his own base anti-Semitism,” he wrote.
Jones denies allegations of a vendetta or anti-Semitism, and claims he didn’t recognize Zochlinski at the time of arrest until the latter reminded him of their history in Santa Barbara.
“I simply enforce the law to the best of my ability and there was nothing personal against him,” said Jones. “His allegations to my actions are completely untrue. How in hell can I possibly do such things?”
Under the Penal Code, for a charge of stalking to stand the alleged perpetrator must make “a credible threat with the intent to place that person in reasonable fear of death or great bodily injury.”
But Zochlinski points out that Jones’ original police report read, “[the suspect] has never physically touched or assaulted [the victim], and he has never made any threats towards her.”
In a citizen complaint filed against Jones in April 1993, Zochlinski claims that despite knowing his case failed to meet the criteria for stalking, the officer arrested him three days after taking the report and acted abusively during the arrest, including pointing a gun at Zochlinski and using racial epithets. An investigation by the UCDPD later concluded that most of Zochlinski’s allegations could not be substantiated.
Although the stalking charge was eventually dropped when the alleged victim failed to appear in court, Zochlinski was arrested again in October 1993 for indecent exposure, of which he was ultimately acquitted. Kristina Tobiason, the Yolo County public defender who represented Zochlinski, said she believes the case against her client should never have been filed.
“I don’t know what the motivation of the police was, but I can say that there was no evidence that Howard did it,” said Tobiason. “The case should never have gone to trial.”
According to Tobiason, the police seemed intent on convicting Zochlinski from the start. In March 1993, police received two reports of indecent exposure 10 minutes apart. In both cases, witnesses reported a man driving a blue car on the Davis campus who was exposing himself.
Zochlinski’s photo was included in a lineup of possible suspects, but Tobiason noted that he does not drive and the cars registered to him did not match the descriptions given by the victims. Moreover, she said that although someone called in with the name of a man who matched a police composite of the perpetrator and drove a similar car, UCDPD never followed up on that anonymous tip.
“The police didn’t include his name in the discovery and didn’t tell the [District Attorney’s Office],” said Tobiason. “I don’t know if they did this out of negligence or if it was a deliberate coverup.”
UC Davis police spokesman Paul Pfotenhauer, who reviewed the case at SN&R’s request, disputes Tobiason’s assertion, saying all tips in the case were followed up with interviews—including the individual in question—and that all that information was forwarded to the DA’s Office.
But to Zochlinski, it seemed like one more piece of evidence that Jones and others were conspiring against him.
“The jury returned with a verdict of not guilty within 15 minutes,” Tobiason said.
By the time his legal nightmare ended with his 1993 acquittal, Zochlinski was no longer a student at UCD. In January, after nine years in the genetics department, Zochlinski was dismissed from his Ph.D. program for failing to file an acceptable thesis by the deadline his dissertation committee had assigned. He was awarded a master of science in genetics instead.
Despite the fact that the stalking charge never stuck, Zochlinski is convinced it labeled him as a criminal and prejudiced others against him. The defendants in his civil suit against the university include the UCD Student Judicial Affairs Office and the Graduate Division, which he claims conspired with police in his malicious prosecution by failing to pursue a thorough investigation of the matter.
Upon receiving the police report on the stalking charge, SJA director, Jeanne Wilson, sent a letter to Zochlinski on December 2, 1992, asking him to meet with her, a UCD police lieutenant, and Graduate Studies Associate Dean Donald Curry to discuss the accusation.
“The police had suggested that they be there to protect our safety,” said Wilson. “They even suggested having the meeting at the police station, that’s how concerned they were.”
SJA decided to let the matter drop once the criminal charges were dismissed in March the following year. Yet, a recent check with the registrar’s office showed that in 1995, SJA had placed a conduct hold—one that lasted until the year 2099—on Zochlinski’s transcripts and diploma. When questioned about the hold, Wilson indicated that she was unaware of it, attributing it to a clerical error. She has since asked the registrar’s office to remove the hold.
“I’ve sent out thousands of resumes over the years, but they always tell me the position’s been filled or don’t return my calls,” said Zochlinski. “Who knows what people are told when they call to check my records? I wouldn’t be surprised if the school has painted me into a monster.”
Yet Wilson said that the hold would not have prevented the transcripts from being released to a potential employer, and that registrar records show there haven’t been any requests for Zochlinski’s records anyway.
After the shock of his arrests by Jones, Zochlinski says he suffered a mental collapse that prevented him from completing his dissertation on time. But he believes that another important reason for his dismissal lies in the stalking charge which “was held against [him] by Dean Curry and others among the UC Davis staff and faculty and destroyed the opportunity [he] had to complete his Ph.D.”
Scott Hawley, chair of the genetics graduate group at the time, recalls Zochlinski’s behavior during discussions with him about his legal problems.
“I can confirm from my own experience that his anger is frightening,” Hawley said. “The threat was so clear that I was concerned about the police officer’s [Jones’] well-being.”
On December 28, 1992, a confidential letter from Curry to Hawley inquired about the possibility of terminating Zochlinski from the program “in light of the extended procrastination” in filing his dissertation.
Curry notes that Zochlinski was required to complete his thesis by March 1992, a deadline that was later extended to the end of fall quarter and not observed. The letter concluded, “I think it is in the best interest of all principals that this matter be resolved as expeditiously as possible.”
While Academic Senate Chairman Jeffery Gibeling concedes that it may be unusual today for a dean to initiate action against a graduate student, that wasn’t the case in the early ’90s when funding cuts were most severe.
“There were times when we were over-enrolled in graduate students. There were budget caps and we had to actively manage our students,” said Gibeling. Zochlinski was consequently dismissed, and his appeal of that decision was rejected.
In 1997, he applied to return as a graduate student under a professor in the School of Medicine but Gibeling, dean of graduate studies at the time, rejected the appeal. Zochlinski applied unsuccessfully again in 1999 and 2000 under current Dean Cristina Gonzalez.
Meanwhile, having languished in limbo for nearly a decade since its filing, Zochlinski’s lawsuit currently awaits a Court of Appeal decision after being dismissed by a trial judge last year for failure to actively pursue the case. On its end, the university appears to be taking a renewed interest in his case.
“I want to assure you that we take seriously all allegations of impropriety within the University and the matters you raise will be fully investigated,” wrote UC President Richard Atkinson in a January 5 letter to Zochlinski.
The university has hired another outside party to look into aspects of Zochlinski’s complaints, mostly related to how the University handles reports of sex crimes.
But Ronald Scholar, an attorney with the Sacramento law firm Angelo, Kilday & Kilduff who is handling the case, has made clear his investigation will not encompass Zochlinski’s charge of false arrest in 1992. Nor will it address his 1972 rape allegation, which “has been forwarded to the Santa Barbara campus for review,” according to a March 22 letter to Zochlinski from UCD Vice Chancellor John Meyer. The outcome of that review is pending.
Meanwhile, Zochlinski’s sense of outrage has not blunted with the passage of time. He continues to hound UC administrators with lengthy letters demanding the righting of past wrongs committed against him. It is this seemingly obsessive—and some would label delusional—quest for “justice” that has supplied his detractors with ammunition.
“Howard’s not some poor victim whom things just happen to. His rage is far from normal, and I’ve had to deal with it for nine years,” said Wilson, referring to Zochlinski’s lawsuit against her. “I’m terrified of him.”
According to Chad Sniffen, administrative assistant at UCD’s Campus Violence Prevention Program, the office has received calls from people who are “frightened by his anger and what he might do, even though legally he’s done nothing wrong.”
But those who know Zochlinski well say that all he wants is to get back into school and move forward with his life. Several professors familiar with his case are calling for an ad hoc committee to review his dismissal in light of the exceptional circumstances at the time.
“We weren’t really aware of all the legal and personal issues that Howard was struggling with,” said Murray Gardner, one of the members on Zochlinski’s original dissertation committee who is professor emeritus at the UCD Center for Comparative Medicine. “If we had known, we probably would’ve given him more time to finish his thesis. Things might not be the way they are today.”
Ultimately, Zochlinski may be brash, eccentric and flawed, but by no stretch of the imagination is he dangerous, said UCD anthropology professor Peter Rodman.
“Howard doesn’t fit in, and he expresses himself in a way that intimidates people sometimes,” Rodman said. “But that’s no reason to deny him fair treatment.”