Witnesses recall mayhem of East Lansing riot


Jeff Cooper, of Campus Barbers Inc., remembers the 1999 MSU riots and talks about how big game days are handled now.
Nick King, Lansing State Journal

EAST LANSING, Michigan — Hindi Linkimer Burkett’s gray 1987 Chevy Nova was a gift from her sister-in-law. It had a saggy roof and a cassette tape player.

And, 20 years ago, she watched from the balcony of her Cedar Village apartment as a swarm of people turned it over and shoved it into a bonfire.

“It burned pretty quick,” Burkett recalled. “It was a pretty light car.”

Burkett had a front-row seat to the most destructive event in East Lansing’s history, the March 27, 1999, riot that followed the Michigan State University basketball team’s loss to Duke in the NCAA Final Four.

That night, a crowd of a few hundred swelled to 10,000 and raged through the streets, propelled by a volatile mix of alcohol, disappointment and youth.

Arsonists and vandals destroyed eight cars, among them a DeWitt Township police cruiser. They broke store windows and parking meters, tossed frozen beer cans from balconies and raided a Taco Bell, fleeing with stolen tacos.

Two-dozen people were arrested that night, and more than 100 more in the days and weeks that followed. The property damage exceeded $500,000. With 230 officers from 12 Michigan police agencies, enforcement costs topped $200,000. 

As her car burned, Burkett phoned her brother, a cop in Pennsylvania. His advice: Stay put. 

But when the tear gas reached her apartment, she and her friends tried to leave. Police shuttled them back inside. 

“The mentality of everything that night went from celebratory to craziness very quickly,” she said.

Nothing in East Lansing since has matched the destruction.

“There never was a rational basis, a theme in any of these events that could be identified,” said East Lansing mayor Mark Meadows, who was mayor in 1999, as well, “other than (rioters saying) ‘I just want to break something.'”

Police were briefed to expect trouble

The briefing Steve Gonzalez and more than 100 other police officers heard that night amounted to this: Expect trouble. 

East Lansing had received reports of people stockpiling lumber and furniture for fires, collecting rocks and freezing beer cans to throw at police. Incidents in the two years prior also put the city on notice, Meadows said. 

“In ’99, there was an indication we were going to have trouble no matter what,” he said, “whether we won in the Final Four or lost in the Final Four.”

Gonzalez was in his second year with the East Lansing Police Department. He donned riot gear that night for the first time as a police officer, feeling protected but far from invincible.

“As a young cop, being on the front line there, I personally didn’t have an idea of how just a few hundred police officers were going to be able to control the behavior of upwards of 10,000 people,” Gonzalez said.  

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Tom Wibert, then a captain with the East Lansing Police Department and later its chief, said, looking back, he’s struck by how naive officials were in their planning. 

The university had organized a “Party at Sparty” at Demonstration Hall field after the game, complete with fireworks. A pep band was stationed at Cedar Village. The plan was that they’d start playing the fight song and march fans to the party on the other side of campus, Wibert said.

It didn’t work.

“With 130 officers, we thought we would not have any issue handling anything,” said Wibert, who joined the department in 1985 and served as chief from 2005 to 2010. “Within a half hour, we had lost control and fires were popping up everywhere.”

Officials put out a call for help to all police agencies in the Lower Peninsula, something they had never done before, Wibert said. 

“The Michigan State Police basically saved our city from burning down,” Wibert said. 

Mob forms, flips police car, sets it on fire

Gonzalez could hear the roar of Spartan fans inside Cedar Village apartment buildings.

The game ended at 10:08 p.m., and thousands of people poured onto the streets. It started out as a celebratory affair.

Gonzalez saw fires break out in the streets. Revelers added to the pyres as the night went on. Fights broke out. Some in the crowd were injured by debris.

Rioters threw rocks and bottles at police. They pulled down street signs. A downed power line lay in the middle of the street. 

It was eerie, said Gonzalez, now ELPD’s deputy chief. He was 22 years old. Thousands of people his own age had become the mob before him. 

Command officers ordered Gonzalez’s squad to wade into the crowd several times that night to arrest individuals inciting the destruction.

At one point, they had to turn back after getting 10 or 20 feet in. The heat of the crowd’s rage proved too much, leaving police leadership worried about the officers’ safety.

The sound was deafening. 

“We were yelling in each other’s ears just to talk,” said Gonzalez. “On top of that, I couldn’t hear my radio. The crowd, the ambient noise just drowned out my radio completely.”

Some members of the mob flipped a DeWitt Township police car and smashed its windows with a traffic control sign, according to a police report. They’d taken a radar and laptop, but left a shotgun locked inside the vehicle. DeWitt Township officers couldn’t retrieve the gun and retreated when they saw the mob heading back toward them.  

A mission was devised quickly to retrieve the weapon, Wibert said. Officers used flashbangs and grenades packed with rubber balls to move the crowd away from the vehicle.

They got the shotgun. Then the crowd took back over.

“Within three minutes, the patrol car was completely engulfed in flames,” the police report said.

Police would find parts from the Ford Crown Victoria as far away as a Western Michigan University dorm room. The total replacement value of the car and equipment inside: $38,338.50. One man was later charged with a crime for walking away with its charred front grill.

Porch the central hub for media coverage 

Jes Golka, who had recently graduated from MSU, watched the men’s basketball team fall to Duke from the comfort of a reclining chair inside his rented house at 224 Bailey St.

He looked up from the TV to see flames in the middle of the street. 

Revelers had grabbed a ladder left on the property by Golka’s landlord, along with a few garbage cans and trash. It became kindling. Anything that wasn’t being protected went onto the pyre.

Then it got worse.

“The most vivid memory I have of that night is sitting on the porch and you could see thousands of people on Grand River,” said Golka, now a 42-year-old software development manager in Austin, Texas. “It was like a flock of birds. They saw the fire, turned up Bailey, and soon people were shoulder to shoulder in the street and the yards.”

Some 61 fires burned that night across East Lansing. 

At one point, an ambulance tried to make its way down the impassable road. The driver shouted out that they were trying to get someone to the hospital.

The crowd began rocking the ambulance back and forth. Golka still remembers the panic on the driver’s face.

“That was the ugly side of it,” he said.

His porch became ground zero for TV crews and reporters. He doesn’t remember the first camera operator taking a spot, only that soon a half dozen of them were jockeying for position. 

His roommates guarded the doors to their house, while Golka roamed the perimeter. They could keep people from going inside, but it was impossible to keep them out of the yard.

“I was too young and drunk to be scared,” Golka said.  

Students overwhelmed in ‘mob scene’ 

Eva Marino, then a sophomore, headed to Cedar Village with a friend a few minutes after the basketball game ended. 

They stayed just a few minutes. It felt like “a mob scene,” and they left because of it.

They moved to a neighborhood north of Grand River Avenue, where they found a group circling a fire and tossing furniture into the flames. 

“I remember it being like a party, but not a fun one,” she said, “more chaotic than happy.”

Two men Marino didn’t know then grabbed her and hoisted her onto their shoulders.

Men in the crowd screamed for her to show her breasts. They chanted. 

She did, reluctantly.

Once. Twice. 

“I was young,” said Marino, a former boutique buyer and manager who now stays at home with her two young children.

A man took her picture while she was lifting her shirt. It would come back to haunt her.

Trail of smashed windows and looting  

The image that stayed with Dustin Buchner was rioters laughing as they stormed out a Taco Bell with taco shells in their hands. 

It seemed like nothing was off limits. People smashed windows. Someone tried to climb up a streetlight. He saw rioters with bulletproof vests on, presumably from the DeWitt Township police cruiser that was torched that night. 

Buchner was an MSU student then. He’s 39 now. He sees the riot as a dangerous response to the basketball team’s first Final Four appearance in 20 years. 

“It was like ‘Hey, we’re here!'” Buchner said, “‘We’ve never been here! We don’t know what to do!'” 

But there had been warning signs, he said. A smaller riot happened in 1998, after MSU’s decision to ban alcohol on Munn Field in response to worsening behavior in the popular tailgating lot on football game days. In 1997, four people were arrested after some 500 revelers gathered in the 100 block of Gunson Street, setting fire to a couch and damaging police cruisers. Police in riot gear used Mace to break up the scene.

Dee Cook was in Tampa, Florida, that night. An MSU trustee at the time, she was there for a fundraising event. She recalls the excitement that MSU was a top tournament contender.

The first she heard of the riot was when she got a call from a student reporter at the State News who was holed up in the newspaper’s offices, afraid to leave.

“Outside their offices on Grand River, they described a situation of just wanton disrespect for property,” Cook said. “I almost couldn’t believe what they were describing.”

Peter McPherson, MSU’s president at the time, relayed to those gathered in Tampa what police had told him about the situation. Cook was taken aback by the sight of her community on the national news.

“If I was in Michigan and turned on the TV and there was reporting on what was going on, I probably wouldn’t have been so shocked,” Cook said. “This was of national interest.”

‘Citizens have to once again foot the bill’

By the time the mayhem subsided in the early morning hours of the following day, two dozen people had been arrested. 

Jeff Cooper, an employee at Gary’s Campus Barbers, went in that morning to see what was left of the business.

He saw remnants of burned mattresses and smoke rising from the grassy medians along Grand River Avenue, but the barbershop was unscathed. 

He and Wibert heard stories of bar owners locking people inside their establishments so they could be protected from the destruction that took place outside. 

“Basically if you could throw gasoline on something and it could burn, people burned it,” Cooper said.

Meadows held a news conference early that afternoon with police and MSU officials. 

“Last night was the worst moment of my life,” he told members of the media. “Today, the citizens of East Lansing have to once again foot the bill for the benefit of having a university in their town.”       

Golka simply swept up, gathering pieces of broken glass strewn about the sidewalk on Bailey Street with a broom and dustpan. 

And, in St. Petersburg, Florida, where MSU had played the night before, basketball coach Tom Izzo fumed. 

The rioters took something away from his team’s success, he said. It had been a 33-5 season. The Duke loss ended a 22-game winning streak. 

“I’m more mad than disappointed,” Izzo said. “I hope the (rioters) realize that no matter what we did, they undid some of it.”

East Lansing officials set up a phone tip line the day after the riot. They called it “Do the Right Thing.”

The city pulled together $50,000 in reward money for tips leading to arrests and convictions.

When the basketball team returned home, freshman forward Adam Ballinger noticed something strange in Wonders Hall, where he lived. 

The TVs in the lounges were showing images of rioters police wanted to identify. 

The mood was “surreal, because none of the players had seen any of it,” Ballinger said. “You could get money for turning people in.

“I don’t know what was in the air that night. What starts a riot?”

Police ‘hall of shame’ leads to search to bring rioters to justice 

The East Lansing Police Department created a page on the city’s website, a “hall of shame.” It had photos of rioters displayed alongside ways to report them.

Those photographs proved essential in criminal cases that followed, Wibert said.

“It’s hard to dispute you’re not one who threw the trash can through the window when you’ve been photographed doing it,” he said.

Local agencies and state police contributed detectives to a task force aimed at bringing rioters to justice.

The Ingham County Prosecutor’s Office sought unpublished photos and unaired footage from the Lansing State Journal, The State News, two Lansing TV stations and others.

After the media organizations refused to give up the images, prosecutor Stuart Dunnings III issued subpoenas, triggering a legal back and forth that lasted more than a year.  

The case reached the Michigan Supreme Court. Dunnings lost.

By the time Ingham County prosecutors issued a report in the fall of 1999, 79 of 132 riot cases had been resolved in East Lansing’s 54B District Court. 

One of those cases was against Marino. 

“I saw my picture every night, every day, and I was hoping no one would turn me in, but they did,” she said.

An unexpected consequence: Jail time

Marino didn’t tell her parents what happened until the day she was arraigned on a recharge of indecent exposure.

A friend of her parents begged her not to plead guilty. Marino didn’t have a lawyer and was determined to get the situation resolved as soon as possible.

“I just wanted to get it over with,” Marino said. “I didn’t think I would be going to jail.”

Judge Richard Ball remanded her to jail pending sentencing.

“It was absolutely devastating,” she said. “I went straight downstairs where they fingerprinted me and held me in a cell in the jail.”

She spent 17 days in the Ingham County Jail. Ball gave her a 60-day suspended sentence, pending the completion of probation. He credited her with 20 days served. Marino also had to pay $2,384.33 in restitution.

Ball still believes there wasn’t any question that Marino was inciting the crowd when she flashed her breasts the night of the riot.

“She wasn’t charged with that, she wasn’t convicted of that, but that was really the basis for the sentence,” he said. 

In all, 71 MSU students were charged in the aftermath of the riot, eight of whom were initially suspended from school. A dozen students from other schools were charged, along with 49 people who weren’t college students.

The average sentence for MSU students was 20 days in jail. For non-students, it was 48.

“My mentality involved a notion that this community ought not to have to put up with this kind of behavior,” Ball said. 

Eighteen people pleaded guilty to riot-related crimes in connection with the damaged DeWitt Township police car. Their jail sentences ranged from one day to a year, and they were ordered to pay a total of $77,422.99 in restitution, according to township records. 

Judges may kick out students convicted of crimes related to a riot 

Within a month of the riot, several members of the Michigan Legislature were pushing to take a hard stance toward those who broke laws in East Lansing. 

On April 20, 1999, Sen. Loren Bennett, R-Canton, introduced a bill that mandated severe penalties for students who commit unlawful acts such as rioting. 

“It’s a bill that is aimed at supporting the 99.999 percent of students who are disgusted by this and embarrassed by this,” Bennett said at the time. 

Senate Bill 0525 became a law in June 2000. It permits judges to kick students out of school if they are convicted for a crime related to a riot within 2,500 feet of a public college or university campus. 

Judges can ban students convicted of riotous behavior from attending the state’s public colleges and universities for up to two years. It also allows judges to order restitution to public bodies for expenses incurred as a result of the incident. 

The total amount of restitution ordered by judges to people charged for riotous behavior in East Lansing, as of March of 2000, was $318,718. The total damage to private and public property: $575,000. 

MSU begins outreach initiative, police change tactics 

Destructive celebrations at MSU didn’t end in 1999, but that year was the pinnacle. 

After MSU’s loss to the University of Texas in the NCAA tournament in 2003, at least two cars were flipped and several fires were started. The police again used tear gas.

Two years later, on April 2, 2005, police used more than 300 tear gas grenades, tear gas rounds, sting ball grenades and other munitions to disperse a crowd gathered at Cedar Village in the wake of another MSU tournament loss, this time to the University of North Carolina.

After that, the tactics changed. Just 13 canisters of tear gas broke up a crowd at Cedar Village on April 6, 2008. Witnesses reported some members of the gathered crowd at Cedar Village chanting “We want tear gas.”

The 1999 riot “was a real wake up call for a lot of people,” said Ginny Haas, who spearheaded many of the university’s efforts to rebuild its relationship with the city and its residents after the riot.

Many MSU students were upset that it had cast them in a negative light along with their university, she said. 

In its aftermath, “the university made some very significant changes, as did the community.”

Of particular importance was getting students connected to East Lansing residents in the neighborhoods, to give them “some way to get to know each other, to understand their feelings,” said Haas, who retired in 2014.

There was also a push to dispel wildly exaggerated assumptions about what drinking at MSU really looked like.

“The average incoming student thought that, when other students drank, they were having seven or eight drinks,” said Dennis Martell, who is the director of the university’s Health Promotion Department and chairs MSU’s Celebrations Committee.

“Actually, it was four to five drinks,” he said.

MSU partnered with bars and restaurants, pushing hard on responsible advertising and detection of fake IDs. Welcome Week was shaved down several days to mitigate excessive drinking. 

Somewhere along the way, and likely for lots of reasons, students actually started drinking less. 

Would a riot like this happen today?

In 2000, MSU undergrads surveyed as part of the National Collegiate Health Assessment said on average that they consumed more than five-and-a-half drinks the last time they partied. 

Last year, they reported drinking fewer than four. More students are choosing to drink less frequently or not at all. 

Today’s students are more focused than those who came though MSU 20 years ago, Martell said, more cognizant of finances given the rise in college costs.

The electronic devices in their pockets could also explain why fewer choose to commemorate MSU sporting events with destruction.

“Students know they can’t do much that won’t be recorded or somehow brought to bear on them for their academic or social career here,” Martell said. 

Today, students have all but forgotten the 1999 riot 

AJ Shaw lives at 224 Bailey St., the same house where Golka and his roommates watched the revelers feed a bonfire, where cameramen filmed the riot from the front porch. 

The 20-year-old MSU student didn’t know anything about the riot until a State Journal reporter told him about it in February.

“That’s crazy because I’ve never heard anything about it before,” said Shaw, an applied engineering science junior. “But I can’t say I’m surprised.”

The home now stands within walking distance of nearly half a billion dollars worth of commercial and residential projects under construction in downtown East Lansing.

Students still burn couches during times of celebration, Shaw said.

“It’s almost kind of like a sense of excitement when we have a big win, because people all rush to Cedar Village hoping that someone is going to burn a couch or something like that,” Shaw said. “I guess it’s part of being a student here.”

But a smaller part, in any event. 

Contact Eric Lacy at 517-377-1206 or Follow him on Twitter @EricLacy.Contact RJ Wolcott at (517) 377-1026 or Follow him on Twitter @wolcottr


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