Clinic security increases after technician’s rape, murder

Veterinarians urge safety precautions in the face of the unimaginable

June 29, 2010 (published)
By Phyllis DeGioia

A veterinary technician was raped and murdered by a convicted sex offender moments after she walked into the clinic alone at 5:30 a.m.

Dr. Michal Harris, a veterinarian working at the practice in Orange Park, Fla., a quiet Jacksonville suburb, hasn’t been the same since that morning on Jan. 23, 2007.

“She is dead simply because we couldn’t imagine the possibility of what happened to her,” Harris said.

Hoping to save others from the same fate as 25-year-old Andrea Boyer, the beloved technician, Harris advocates strict security measures at veterinary practices, many which have a high number of female staff members.

Her main policy is that no one should be at the practice alone. To those who question her stance, Harris responds: “To do so is a firable offense because I will not bury another one of my employees ever again. As my Mom always used to say, ‘end of discussion.'

Harris recalls speaking with Boyer the night before she died because she had been sick. "I told her, 'You don’t have to come in at the crack of dawn,' but she said, ‘You know me I want to get in early and get set up.’ If we’d had the (no one alone) policy like we do now, he might have walked right past her.”

Harris is referring to 40-year-old Michael Renard Jackson. In late April, a jury found the previously known sex offender guilty of murdering Boyer and recommended the death penalty.

At the time of Boyer's murder, the clinic had a good alarm system in place, but it did not protect the technician from her attacker. Since the incident, Harris bought the practice and further refined its safety measures. Alarms, while necessary, are not enough, she says.

Harris has consulted several security experts as well as other clinics and hospitals about how to increase safety protocols. She offers the following suggestions for practice owners and their staff:

*    No one is to be at the clinic alone. Whoever arrives first is to wait in the car until someone else arrives. No one walks to a car alone.

*    Good lighting is critical. Make sure light bulbs are replaced. (One police officer told Harris that criminals are like cockroaches and scurry when the light is turned on.)

*    Some security systems can be equipped with portable panic buttons. That affords an employee walking a dog or moving between buildings additional security.

*    Video surveillance has additional benefits other than filming activity. If the alarm goes off in the middle of the night, you can look on the Internet to see if it's a false alarm without risking your safety or being greatly inconvenienced. Digital cameras that have infrared capability are more useful than webcams for detailing movement.

*    If meeting a client after hours, get a license plate and don't open the door for someone you are not expecting. (Harris acknowledges the difficulty of that in a business that handles emergencies.) If someone shows up on your doorstep after the clinic has closed, make that person call from outside and show a driver’s license or other identification before you open the door.

*    If you have a clinic cat, leave the cat overnight in an area unaffected by motion sensors, or set the sensors to not go off for anything less than 80 pounds.

Harris knows that some people consider this level of security to be overkill. “Remind your techs if they are resistant that our clinic is in a good location,” Harris wrote in a VIN discussion.

“Being in a safe, busy area doesn't make you safe,” Harris said. “In all fairness, if you had asked me two hours before Andrea was killed if it was necessary for me to take someone with me to the clinic I would have said absolutely not. I thought the clinic was the safest place in the world. You have to understand it’s a possibility, and once you realize it’s a possibility, because they are young women by themselves, you have an obligation to do whatever is reasonable to make that security happen.”

Harris acknowledges that video surveillance wouldn’t have prevented the incident, although she thinks it might have made finding the perpetrator easier.

The buddy system, however, is not only a good safety tool for guarding against intruders. It can be useful when dealing with animals.

“But what if someone gets bitten badly?” Harris asked. “You don’t want them by themselves. It’s a less stressful situation if they have some support. These are young girls, a lot of them are under 25 and don’t have a lot of life experience, and putting in an extra person is such a small expense. If you only have three staff, is it worth it to keep animals over the weekend?”

Harris acknowledges that times are tough financially, and people have to watch payroll and expenses. Still, she believes the benefits outweigh the extra cost.

“If you pay $12 to $14 an hour — that’s well paid in this area — and let’s say it takes them six hours to do kennel shifts over the weekend, by having two people you’re doubling the shift. That comes out to $3,700 a year.

"If you can’t spend $5,000 a year to keep your employees safe, you have to examine where you’re spending your money,” Harris said.

Sometimes during weekends her employees prefer to bring a friend or family member rather than coordinate schedules with another employee. That’s fine with Harris, although she requires and pays for a background check before anyone is allowed to be an employee’s security companion. 

Vetting backgrounds may be warranted considering statistics reported by the federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). According to the agency, armed robberies accounted for only one of 234 thefts from 2008 through March of 2010. After-hours burglaries accounted for 75 more crimes, and the rest are employee thefts. 

Since a veterinarian is twice as likely to lose drugs to employee theft than during break-ins and robberies, protecting controlled substances is a small part of security for a veterinary practice and its employees, said Barbara Carreno, a DEA public affairs officer.

“Many factors, such as neighborhood, lighting, physical construction and entryways, alarm protection against both burglaries and robberies or duress situations, all go into a comprehensive security plan to protect a DVM office," she said.

In Houston, Dr. Bill Folger practices in one of the wealthiest zip codes in the United States. His clinic is in a busy strip mall. “You’d think it would be safe, but we’ve had three or four break-ins in this strip mall in the past couple of months. It’s happening all over the country because of the economy. I grew up in this neighborhood. It’s been worse here since I was a kid.”

Folger relayed the story of a colleague's clinic in a part of Houston that he compares to South Central Los Angeles, an area associated with violence, crime and blight. The practice, Folger said, remained open until 9 p.m. to stay competitive. According to the practice’s office manager, who asked that the practice not be identified, a man once came in with an Uzi submachine gun and forced the employees and a client to lie down on their stomachs while he took their jewelry and belongings. He then ordered everyone into a dog kennel and locked them inside.

Folger says his colleague’s hospital has since dwindled from a thriving six-doctor practice to a one-and-a-half doctor practice. It remains in the same part of town.

Folger has no rules against employees being alone at the clinic, but he has a strong security policy.

“I don’t think we need to turn our practices into armed camps," he said. "We have motion detectors in all of the front rooms; if anyone breaches the huge plate glass windows the alarm would go off. We have shatter sensors and security cameras. We keep the door from the lobby to the back locked even during the business day. People who come in have to stay in the lobby. If they’re not patients we turn them away. If someone gets in the back (without an employee), employees ask what they’re doing.”

He added: “We keep an eye out for each other pretty good here (in the strip mall). The landlord is a former law enforcement officer and well connected.”

In 1994, Folger's associate Dr. Mary McCaine experienced an incident similar to Harris's at the clinic she used to own in Missouri City, Texas. A man posing as a client buzzed to be let in the practice. He was pretending to hold a cat in a box, but the box actually contained a gun and duct tape.

McCaine recounted the events in a VIN discussion: "My employee was working alone in the middle of the day when a man came in and robbed, sexually assaulted her and cut her throat. She pretended to be dead and he heard someone ring the doorbell and ran out the back. Luckily she was able to untie herself enough to call 911. It was terrifying for me to arrive back after lunch with all the police, media, and crime scene tape. My employee was life flighted out and did survive.”

The victim’s throat was cut from ear to ear.

The man was arrested 13 years later thanks to a national DNA database. In 2008, 47-year old Louis Charles Harper agreed to a plea bargain of a 47-year sentence in connection with the incident, according to local news reports.

Soon after the attack, McCaine moved her clinic, which had been isolated and in a part of town with an increasing crime rate. Unlike Harris’s clinic, McCaine’s building was leased, and she was able to break the lease because of the incident and move to a much busier, safer strip.

“A lot of my clients were afraid and said, ‘My husband won’t let me come here.’ I think the employees would have been OK if we hadn't moved, but everyone would have been much more cautious and on edge. They weren't on edge at the new location,” she said.

Like Harris, McCaine initiated a policy that no one should ever work alone. She also had a rule where the first person to arrive waited in the car. Employees wore portable panic buttons around their necks, they had walkie talkies for walking dogs and reported anything suspicious to the police.

McCaine no longer owns the practice, for reasons unrelated to the incident, but continues to make personal safety a priority at the two clinics where she now works.

“I’m OK with the level of security because I don’t have after-hours shifts, but if I have to go in I get a tech to go with me,” McCaine said. “Today in general it has made me much more cautious not only when I go to work, but also in parking lots, when I drive home, or if it looks like a car is following me down the street. It reminds me that you always need to be aware.”

McCaine also emphasizes to clinic owners the value of carrying workers' compensation insurance (which is not required of businesses in Texas). The insurance proved highly valuable to her former employee. "It covered every bit of her care, psychological and plastic surgery. It also means I was not personally liable.”

It covered counseling for the victim’s family as well.

At Harris's Florida practice, workers' compensation paid for Boyer's funeral expenses, provided a death benefit to her widow and extended grief counseling to her co-workers.

To Harris, her commitment to clinic safety is Boyer's legacy. The veterinarian keeps a photo of Boyer on her office desk.

“Does lightning strike twice in the same place?” asked Harris, rhetorically. “It won’t now. We have looked at this from a system standpoint. Our goal is for it not to happen to anybody. The clinic is in a pretty good area. It wasn’t a drug offense, and it had nothing to do with being a vet clinic. I tell all my friends who own a small business: It’s not about being paranoid, it’s about admitting there are risks.”

McCaine believes that there's no such thing as too much security.

"There is no way to go overboard on it," she said. "Once (a violent incident) has happened to you, it changes your whole outlook."

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