4 ETSU students arrested for "suspicious items"; new details - WRBL

4 ETSU students arrested for "suspicious items"; new details revealed in court

Posted: Updated: April 29, 2013 11:55 AM EDT
(Left to Right )  Ellias Rasmussen, Rishi Malhotra, Brandon Buchanan and Wesley Miracle (Source: Johnson City Police Department) (Left to Right ) Ellias Rasmussen, Rishi Malhotra, Brandon Buchanan and Wesley Miracle (Source: Johnson City Police Department)

Malhotra's attorney says his client had no ill intentions, and what police actually seized were herbs, spices, and religious items.

News Channel 11's Kylie McGivern sat down with the Chief of Police and Vice President of Student Affairs Monday, who tell a different story. She also met with some of those evacuated, to hear their concerns regarding why the university's text alert system wasn't used during the evacuation.

University leaders wanted to avoid widespread panic on an incident they say was concentrated to this specific building. But for all those living inside, jarred awake in the late night hours, they say any explanation, would have been better than none.

"Panic - was the first thing. Even just from starting with them knocking at the door, was panic, not knowing who it was. Then once we seen it was the police they were saying we need to evacuate our building, for some - they never even told us a reason," ETSU student Danessa Boyd said.

Boyd recalls the night she was evacuated from Building B in Buccaneer Ridge Apartments, filled with confusion and chaos she feels could have been lessened.

"Let us know at least something, instead of hearing rumors and hearing different stories," Boyd said.

Consumed by their own thoughts of what could be happening -

"Oh there's a bomb threat, oh they're looking for somebody you didn't really know," Boyd said.

No emergency text alert was sent to notify ETSU students.

"We didn't get any of that until the day after," Boyd said.

Rather than alerting an entire community, ETSU took action with those they had reason to believe could be directly affected.

"We did not feel - or have any reason to believe that the threat we thought might materialize - could go outside that particular location. So that's why the decision was made to contain it to that particular facility, and that alerting the entire community was not required or necessary. In matter of fact it could have been disruptive," Chief of Police Jack Cotrell said.

Some of the "suspicious materials" found by police were unknown at first.

"Gave them (first responders) reason to say, 'I don't know what this is. I feel it could possibly be a threat to people in this building,'" Chief Cotrell said.

But Chief Cotrell said investigators believe they found the ingredients necessary to manufacture

psychedelic mushrooms. In a statement, Malhotra said he was planning on doing a "project" to grow mushrooms. Chief Cotrell said their research into the making of psychedelic mushrooms was consistent with the materials investigators found.

"He planned to do a project to grow mushrooms. And he had everything he needed, to grow mushrooms," Chief Cotrell said.

"It was thoroughly investigated by all of the officials on hand and they made a, a clear decision that there was no evidence of any explosive device or bomb related activity. What we did have was evidence of drug violations, marijuana related violations," VP of Student Affairs Joe Sherlin said.

Chief Cotrell said items sent to the TBI will take at least four to six weeks before results are revealed.

In terms of the FBI investigation into Malhotra, Chief Cotrell wanted to make clear there is no active FBI investigation into this ETSU student - just a standard check to see if his name appears in their database.

The four students charged are subject to disciplinary review, which could result in their dismissal, or permanent withdrawal from ETSU.


UPDATE: Rishi Malhotra and Elias Rasmussen were arraigned in Washington County court this morning.

Malhotra's attorney told News Channel 11 the items seized were not dangerous at all.

"The other items seized all have to do with his Hindi religion," said Tom Jessee, "they took some spices, they took some herbs, they took a small bunsen burner, there was no concern that those items were anything other than things he uses in his Hindi religion."

Brandon Buchanan and Wesley Miracle are due to be arraigned at 1:30.


Four ETSU students are now facing drug charges, after what the university is calling "suspicious items" prompted an investigation.

According to the police report, Ellias Rasmussen, Rishi Malhotra, Brandon Buchanan and Wesley Miracle were all arrested at Buccaneer Ridge, an ETSU apartment complex, this weekend.

The incident started Friday night when a fire alarm went off at the complex and police arrested Rasmussen when they found marijuana, drug paraphernalia and $575. After he was released police escorted him back to his room, that's when police found two of the other suspects smoking pot. Upon further investigation they found marijuana, crystal pellets, propane tanks, powders, fertilizers and a non active pressure cooker, which is when officials decided to evacuate the building.

"Someone's banging on my door, banging on my roommates door saying, 'hey you gotta get out of the building, it's an evacuation.' they didn't tell us anything," said ETSU student, David Lilly.

Waking up, being told to evacuate, then seeing school security, Johnson City Police, the Unicoi County Sheriff's Department, the Bomb Squad, the State Fire Marshal, a K-9 unit, ATF and the FBI. Students got on Twitter, Facebook and the ETSU web page searching for answers, but could find none.

"There's a whole system called Gold Alert to send people out messages," said Lilly, "possibly could have used that."

Could have, but didn't. Lilly's roommate, Zack Schuette, said, "they put alerts on for what seems to be silly stuff sometimes and then when something like this happens, something serious, there's not always an alert on it."

So News Channel 11 asked school officials why a Gold Alert wasn't sent out to students, staff and faculty.

"The situation was contained," said Joe Smith, ETSU Spokesman,  "we don't know what the items were being used for and so there for we didn't really feel like there was a clear present threat to anyone in the building."

Students said not only were they not told what was going on in the middle of the night, but they weren't notified when the scene was cleared.

"I mean I would have expected hey at least a notice on every door, 'hey officers were here this is what they did, what they found," said Lilly.

Smith said while arrests are made on campus, this case was extreme, "the nature of what happened last night and this morning where you have a number of outside agencies coming in, the complexity of what was found, the complexity to identifying what was there and what the purposes were for, no that does not happen often here."

School officials believe this was an isolated incident and don't believe anyone on the ETSU campus is in any type of danger at this time.

The powder and liquid that police found has been sent to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to be tested. Officials also say Malhotra is currently under surveillance by the FBI and ATF for any suspicious activity.

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