Accidental finding led to conviction of former UC Davis professor for filming of 19-year old
Before taking time off for Winter Break in 2015, Karl Kjer, an entomologist and tenured professor at UC Davis, left the keys to his office with one of the junior specialists working in his lab so they could feed his fish while he was gone. A few weeks prior to Winter Break, Kjer had asked the junior specialist to order two 1-terabyte Western Digital external hard drives, purchased through the university, for the purpose of storing photographs and images for research-related purposes.
The junior specialist, who recently recounted the incident to The California Aggie and who wishes to remain anonymous, said they had seen Kjer take the hard drives into his office — which had a separate door that locks independently. The plan was to transfer photos from an iMac to a computer hooked up to an imaging system. A volunteer working at the lab had asked the junior specialist to retrieve the hard drives from Kjer’s office so they could begin transferring files.
“I went to find the hard drives […] in Karl’s office and just picked up one and gave it to the volunteer and we plugged it into the iMac,” the junior specialist said. “And the hard drive’s window […] automatically pops up. We saw all of these different little file names pop up, and we were like, ‘What’s this?’ Because we weren’t expecting them to be full already.”
What they found on the hard drives was not the research data they expected, but internet pornography as well as videos Kjer had recorded himself in 2012 by setting up a camera inside the bathroom of his home in New Jersey to record individuals without their knowledge. The discovery of these materials on hard drives purchased by UC Davis later led to criminal charges.
Kjer recently spoke to The California Aggie over email about his time at UC Davis and his ultimate resignation from the university for health reasons.
“Working at UC Davis was the greatest honor of my life,” Kjer said. “My colleagues in my department were so kind to me, and were unaware that for a short period prior to moving to California, I was consumed by an ugly, compulsive and addictive behavior that I was unable to control. I commend those who shined a light on it, and in particular, one in NJ whose strength and bravery is beyond measure. I never meant to harm anyone, and am sorry. I know I cannot undo the harm I caused. I deeply regret the impact of my actions on all those affected. I have been in therapy since, and am focusing on sobriety.”
In July of 2015, Karl Kjer accepted the Schlinger Chair of Systematic Entomology position in the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology. Kjer left Rutgers University, in New Jersey, after 18 years at the university, for the tenured position at UC Davis.
Kjer is a co-founder of the 1,000 Insect Transcription Evolution Project. According to the Davis Enterprise, the project’s team had “developed state-of-the-art methods to analyze genetic data from the DNA of modern insects and calibrate DNA ‘clocks’ with fossil records” which were then used “to estimate the patterns and timing of insect evolution.”
Morgan Jackson, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, said via email interview that Kjer “was highly regarded for his work deciphering the higher relationships of insects using DNA data, which he was an early proponent of.” Jackson had cited “a number of papers” that Kjer had either published or contributed to.
In November of 2015, Kjer hired a junior specialist who worked with him in a full-time position in his lab at UC Davis.
“When I first started working with Kjer, we were going to set up a really nice imaging system for publications or just high-def microphotography [of] specimens we were going to use for his research,” the junior specialist said. “Since we did not get our imaging system first, we decided to kind of prepare for it, and so he [Kjer] asked me to order two hard drives.”
After opening files on just one of the two university-purchased hard drives stored in Kjer’s office over Winter Break, the junior specialist and volunteer found a lot of “terrible images that he recorded of quite a lot of women without them knowing.”
“There was a lot of folders of internet pornography that he downloaded, and we kind of closed the window and looked at each other like, ‘What did we just find?’” the junior specialist said. “At a later point, after we looked through it and made notes [of] when they were taken, when did he last access them — they were spanning at least all the way back from 2010, up to 2012, 2013. A lot of them said that he was still accessing them up to 2015, when I was working.”
In addition to the internet pornography stored on the hard drives, the junior specialist estimates that there were more than 10 videos Kjer had recorded himself, including a video of him installing the camera in the bathroom in his home in New Jersey. It appeared the camera was pointed at the shower and some individuals being filmed were partially clothed while others were nude — “all of them definitely did not know they were being filmed or imaged at the time.”
“We kind of freaked out a little bit and we weren’t sure what to do,” the junior specialist said. “Both of us were kind of scared the university wouldn’t take us seriously or wouldn’t take serious action against Karl. We were scared about that and we didn’t know if we would get retaliated against.”
The junior specialist continued working with Kjer until his resignation from the university, although they took a medical leave because they were “stressed and not coping too well with the entire situation.”
“I decided to talk to one of the professors at UC Davis who I really trusted,” the junior specialist said. ”She, through obligation, told me beforehand that she would have to tell the appropriate authorities at UC Davis if I was going to tell her. She reported it to the UC Davis police and they got involved and ended up confiscating the computers at Kjer’s lab, including the hard drives. The volunteer and I […] also took backups of the evidence that were on the hard drives on our own little USBs and we turned those in too. Only through the professor I talked to initially who I reported this to did I learn that he was encouraged to leave and that he himself decided to leave the university a week after this meeting.”
The university initially denied record requests from The California Aggie related to the incident, citing an exemption for disclosure in relation to personnel matters. However, the university did finally release a Summary of Incident Report.
“June 10, 2016: UC Davis Police Department was contacted by College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (CAES) when student employees alleged that a tenured faculty professor had secretly videotaped possible students in a bathroom,” the report states. “June 13, 2016: UC Davis Detective met with student employees and two CAES administrators. Student employee discovered pornographic thumbnail images on hard drive. Student employees looked through some of the files and saw Kjer placing and removing a video camera in a bathroom after a female got out of the shower. Student employees copied and saved images and videos on a thumb drive but did not alert authorities until now. Detective reviewed videos and confirmed content.”
According to Sgt. Paul Henoch from the UC Davis Police Department, two concurrent investigations were occuring at this time — the university’s investigation and the criminal investigation, which he was involved with. The report states that the modification/creation dates on the videos are 8/21/2012 and 8/22/2012, before Kjer came to UC Davis.
Henoch was responsible for determining whether any criminal violations took place in California. One of Kjer’s hard drives was seized, which Henoch said contained videos of surreptitious recordings of “women [and] possible students in [the] bathroom, taking a shower, getting out of the shower [and] undressing.”
According to the report, “Detective, with assistance of CAES administrators, was able to confirm probable identity of one of the females in the video.” Henoch said detectives confirmed the identity of one of the individuals using a still image of a posterboard of a project the student had been working on. The individual was not a UC Davis student.
Ultimately, detectives “could not determine that any crime occurred in California.”
On June 16, a letter was delivered to Kjer which placed him on administrative leave and UCDPD sent information to New Jersey.
“Once my investigation was completed, [the] university was very concerned about the safety of the students here, that’s why I went through all of the megabytes of imagery, videos and stuff like that,” Henoch said. “I was able to determine that none of it was our students or videotaped at UC Davis and it happened back in 2012-2014 over at possibly Rutgers University. I sent my incident report to Rutgers and they sent it to wherever they needed to send it.”
The California Aggie received a copy of The State of New Jersey vs. Karl M. Kjer, dated to 2017.
“Within the jurisdiction of this court, knowing he is not licensed or privileged to do so, he photographs, films, videotapes, records or otherwise reproduces in an [sic] manner, the image of another person whose intimate parts are exposed or who is engaged in an act of sexual penetration or sexual contact without that person’s consent and under circumstances in which a reasonable person would not expect to be observed, specifically by video taping (victim #1) while showering at his residence […in NJ] without her knowledge or consent, in violation N.J.S. 2C: 14-9B (a third degree crime).”
Kjer was charged on Feb. 17, 2017 “with one count of invasion of privacy” for filming a 19-year old woman showering in his bathroom in June of 2015 without her knowledge, according to the website for Middlesex County, New Jersey. One article from a local New Jersey publication states that he has avoided jail time and was sentenced to three years probation.
“He would invited people over to his house for parties because sometimes that’s what lab professors do […] so they can connect and get along with each other,” the junior specialist said. “But he was just using it for a really malicious purpose.”
In email communication with The California Aggie, Kjer said both he and UC Davis administrators “came to an agreement of confidentiality” over his resignation in June of 2016 which “was health related.”
After news broke in 2017 that Kjer had been charged in New Jersey, however, some students and staff in the Department of Entomology and Nematology were upset the university had not told them about the investigation. Some UC Davis students found out about the charges through tweets. One tweet from entomologist Fran Keller, who works at the UC Davis Bohart Museum, states: “Now we know why he left an entomology endowed systematics chair at UCD. He… secretly recording woman in shower.”
Other students found out about the charges from Jackson, the aforementioned Ph.D. candidate in Canada, who also tweeted about the news.
“I’m sorry that the Davis entomology community learned about Kjer’s deeds via my Twitter rather than from their institution and “leadership,”” Jackson wrote via email interview. “For what it’s worth, I originally learned of the story from a Davis alum who shared the first news report from New Jersey and noted that this would explain why Kjer seemingly disappeared in the dead of night from a high profile research chair position.”
On March 2, 2017, Steve Nadler, the chair of the Department of Entomology & Nematology, sent an email to graduate students addressing the arrest of Kjer in New Jersey.
“I understand that this has been disturbing news to those of you who have become aware of this thing through social media,” Nadler wrote in the email. “Several of you have expressed concerns to me about what may have taken place while Karl was employed at UC Davis. Please be assured that I share your concerns about Dr. Kjer. it is my understanding that the University learned of this matter in June, 2016. The University acted immediately to launch a criminal investigation and placed Dr. Kjer on involuntary leave.”
Nadler also offered to organize “a joint student-faculty committee to address any remaining concerns you may have regarding student safety or graduate student-faculty interactions.” On March 9, Nadler sent another email.
“I realize that one of the disturbing things about […] the Karl Kjer incident is that there is concern among those of you who visited Karl’s home that your privacy could have been violated,” Nadler wrote. “I also understand that this concern may persist despite that the UC Davis police found no evidence of criminal activity taking place in Davis based on university computers and backup drives seized from Dr. Kjer (and examined by the UCD police). I had a conversation about this with members of the Dean’s office today, and they recommend that if you have any reason to believe that you could have been a victim of Dr. Kjer, please contact the UC Davis police to discuss the matter with them.”
After Kjer’s departure from the university, his former junior specialist was able to work in Nadler’s lab for some time. The junior specialist said that while they did feel the university addressed the situation, they also felt “they were trying to sweep it under the rug.”
Entomologist Gwen Pearson, who is also Purdue University’s Department of Entomology Education and Outreach coordinator, is the founder and head of Ento-Allies, which serves as “victim advocates.” Pearson spoke to The California Aggie not as part of her official capacity as an official at Purdue.
“Entomology itself is an interesting discipline,” Pearson said. “For many, many years, women were quite scarce. At this point, we have almost equal male/female student numbers, but in terms of tenured members in entomology or people who are in the industry, there’s still a pretty significant skew towards men. We’re there for the people who have had bad things happen. Especially when you have power situations, like a faculty member and a student, not everybody wants to file a complaint but they do need support and advice and somebody to say, ‘It’s totally not your fault that you were picked on, it’s totally not your fault that someone touched you inappropriately, and we will stay with you and here’s some options for you.’”
Pearson discussed what she says is a pattern in the scientific community where a male professional will engage in inappropriate behavior, resign and quickly find another job.
“Right about the time they’re called on it, and proceedings begin, if they resign, it’s over because they’re no longer an employee and the university no longer has any sway over that,” Pearson said. “Very often what happens is […] someone will get in trouble and resign, start over at a new institution and their bad behavior doesn’t necessarily follow them from institution to institution.”
An example of this pattern, which Pearson discussed, is that of the accusations of sexual misconduct as well as research misconduct aimed at University of Kentucky Professor of Entomology James Harwood, who subsequently resigned from his position. The university decided not to pursue an investigation after Harwood’s resignation.
“I’ve seen it happen a couple of times where someone resigns and back channel talk is all — they get caught doing something they shouldn’t have done — and they get a new job,” Pearson said. “It really baffles me why, when there’s such a huge pool of talented scientists, why do we keep rehiring people who we know behave badly?”
Jackson discussed his frustration when, after the news broke of Kjer’s criminal charges, colleagues “shrugged it off,” chastised him “for speaking out and condemning him before he was found guilty” or “who continued to publish with him.”
“If academics are too afraid or too weak to call out someone who has been criminally convicted for exploiting multiple victims, how can we trust them to do the right thing when a case isn’t as black and white?” Jackson said. “How can we trust them to stand up for their students, their employees, or the general public interacting with their institution if they can’t bring it upon themselves to publicly comment and condemn someone like Kjer? I’m equally concerned about scientists who may choose to overlook these charges and still consider Kjer a scientist worth collaborating with, as if his ideas and influence excuse his exploitation of other humans.”
For Pearson, in a circumstance such as this, it is important to make sure people are informed — “there’s things that we can do personally, which is what I’m focused on, by being as supportive as I can to victims.”
“This is not someone you should collaborate with,” Pearson said. “The larger part is, the consensus we are moving towards, is that harassment, assault — that’s a type of misconduct that is scientific misconduct. If you can’t be a good human, then you can’t be a good scientist.”
Written by: Hannah Holzer — firstname.lastname@example.org