Chico State professor disciplined for student affair allegedly threatened colleagues who complained
A prominent Chico State University biology professor allegedly spoke of killing two female colleagues who cooperated in a 2020 investigation that found he had a prohibited sexual affair with a graduate student, state court and newly released university records show.
A former FBI agent hired by the university to evaluate David Stachura and the alleged threat concluded that the university might have been justified to fire him, his report shows. But Stachura did not act on the alleged threat and Chico State retained him, sanctioning him lightly for the alleged affair.
The settlement, with Stachura denying any wrongdoing, kept the investigation out of his personnel file, clearing his path to tenure in the spring of 2021 and naming him “Outstanding Professor” of the 2020-21 academic year.
He remains employed by the university.
Stachura joined Chico State’s faculty in 2014. He researches blood and immune cell formation, primarily using fish cells. He’s brought Chico State over $1 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health to support his work.
Allegations that he had an affair with a student over whom he had direct authority triggered an investigation by the university’s Title IX office. The unit probed violations of the California State University’s executive order banning employees from having consensual sexual relationships with people over whom they exercise power, such as professors with students they teach.
After interviewing two professors who said they heard Stachura and the student having sex and saw them kissing, the investigation found sufficient evidence that a sexual affair occurred. The professors declined to comment.
The university’s investigative records and more than 700 pages of court documents in restraining order and divorce and child custody proceedings against Stachura, show he repeatedly denied the affair, claimed a university investigator fabricated evidence and that colleagues acted because of long-standing conflicts with him.
Chico State opted for a light discipline fearing anything harsher could have been overturned in arbitration since the student did not complain and the affair was consensual, said Andrew Staples, Chico State spokesman in a statement issued Tuesday.
“…the circumstances of this case may be considered differently today”
as the views of California State University system and its faculty union “regarding faculty misconduct continue to evolve.”
The university “thoroughly investigated the alleged threats following the settlement agreement and disciplinary action,” he added.
In an interview with EdSource, Stachura insisted the investigation “was a witch hunt,” denied having the affair and said he didn’t threaten his colleagues.
Stachura ultimately agreed to an unpaid suspension for a third of a semester after the university denied his appeal.
Stachura was later in 2021 on administrative leave for about a month while the threat allegations were investigated. He returned to work in September 2021.
Guns and bullets
Stachura’s estranged wife, Miranda King, said in a 2021 Butte County Superior Court restraining order request that Stachura “confided in me that he had purchased (a) semi-automatic shotgun, a handgun, and hollow-point bullets to kill his two co-workers and then himself.” Stachura, she told the court, “said he was planning on shooting them.”
He “was very specific that he bought hollow-point bullets for maximum damage and took the guns to (a shooting) range so he’d know how to shoot them and be accurate,” King told the court in writing. He “believed there was a conspiracy at work. He had many conversations with me about how angry he was about his co-workers for reporting him. He often referred to these women as bitches and couldn’t seem to let go of the fact that they had complained about his behavior.”
King also told the court she knew of the affair and had seen on Stachura’s phone photos of her husband and the student.
In his court filings, Stachura denied making threats, saying he told King he’d only had a dream about a shooting and bought guns for home defense during Covid-19 before allegations of the affair arose.
He told EdSource,
“I never made any threats to these people.”
King filed a court document in August 2021 related to the alleged threat: a receipt in Stachura’s name for 10 boxes of 12-gauge double-aught buck shotgun shells and several boxes of 10mm handgun ammunition bought at a Chico gun store and shooting range on Oct. 15, 2020.
That was the same date that Tina Leung, the CSU Chancellor’s Office manager of investigations, appeals and compliance, emailed Stachura her denial of his appeal in the affair case.
The threat allegations became known to Chico State officials months later, in August 2021.
Stachura told EdSource in an interview he only kept birdshot shells for his shotgun, “which (are) basically lethal to a squirrel.” Asked why he bought the far-deadlier buckshot, he twice said he didn’t recall the transaction.
But, moments later, he said he did remember the buckshot purchase. It was unrelated to the appeal denial, which he said he expected and that it didn’t upset him.
He said he just decided coincidentally that day to stock up on ammo that had been “impossible to purchase” during Covid, calling the timing “unfortunate.”
The pistol bullets were hollow points, the kind his wife described. “Those are the best for home defense,” he said. “This isn’t some kind of crazy purchase.”
After learning of the alleged threats in mid-August 2021, Chico State hired former FBI agent Stephen Carter, of the Threat Assessment Group, to assess Stachura. The professor was about to return to a full semester of teaching. The discipline over the affair was behind him.
Carter told Chico State officials that if they believed King’s “report of homicidal intent toward the two professors and believe that (Stachura) remains angry toward the two professors, it may be appropriate to conclude that (Stachura) does pose an unacceptable risk of violence to the workplace,” and should be terminated, Carter wrote to university Labor Relations Director Denise Hardy on Sept. 14, 2021.
Permitting Stachura to stay, he wrote, “would perpetuate the risk of potential harm to the two professors who provided evidence against (Stachura) and, potentially, the broader CSU community.”
The threat allegations originated with King, whom Stachura contradicted, Carter noted. What King told the court about Stachura suggests the presence of “risk factors for violence.” He also identified three “situational risk factors for violence” — the restraining order, the loss of an important relationship (his marriage) and family stress.
Carter also found that “despite apparent evidence to the contrary,” Stachura denied “any romantic or sexual contact with the student.”
While he didn’t know “with certainty, the truth of this matter,” Carter said he “assumed (Stachura) has not been truthful about the alleged affair,” adding “repeated dishonesty is also a risk factor for general violence.”
Carter declined an interview request.
Noise through the walls
In mid-March 2020, a professor in an office adjoining Stachura’s in Chico State’s Holt Hall heard sex sounds, she told an investigator, records show.
The professor said she recognized a graduate student’s voice. She heard her “stop vocalizing sex sounds, say ‘hold on’ and then the sex sounds started again,” records show. In the following weeks, she heard similar noises at least three more times. She told an investigator that Stachura “turned the space into a clubhouse. They were very loud and not hiding their relationship.”
In June, another professor knocked on Stachura’s door. There was shuffling, she told an investigator. The door opened. “There was a strange odor emanating from the room, a hot, no-air-flow kind of smell. The aroma was sweaty.” The student sat on a futon opened into a bed. Stachura sat nearby, shoeless.
After sharing their experiences, the professors asked Gordon Wolfe, a tenured colleague, to talk to Stachura. Wolfe taught biology at Chico State since 2000.
“It was impeding their ability to work because it was unprofessional and damaging to morale to have to listen to this. They just didn’t feel, as junior faculty, comfortable talking to him about anything personal,” Wolfe told EdSource.
Wolfe called Stachura, who “denied everything,” Wolfe said.
Despite the Cpvid lockdown, professors sometimes used their offices to teach remotely, and lab experiments had to be attended to. Stachura said he had to go in daily to feed his laboratory fish.
In late June 2020, one of the professors said she saw Stachura kissing the student in a laboratory, records show.
The kiss was reported to the university’s Title IX office, which opened an investigation.
Consensual relationships between professors and students they teach are banned to eliminate “the academic equivalent of the casting couch,” said lawyer Brett Sokolow, chairman of the advisory board of the National Association of Title IX Administrators. They protect those “at the lower end” of power dynamics, students competing for research jobs or a professor’s attention, he said. If a relationship between a student and a professor “becomes known, it can taint scholarship and academic success because people will always wonder whether it was truly merited.”
“We have a friendship”
The student denied the affair to investigator Robert Morton. EdSource is not identifying the student, and she didn’t return multiple messages.
She told Morton that sometimes she lunched with Stachura in his office. She didn’t know why anyone thought more was occurring.
Morton twice interviewed Stachura, who had responses to the allegations, documents show. The sex sounds must have come from movies he and the student watched.
“People have a terrible impression of me and this student. We do have a relationship. We have a friendship. This feels like a vindictive type of thing to teach me a lesson.”
Morton wrote Stachura’s “credibility was diminished because he prevaricated, deflected to other issues rather than answer questions, and changed his responses to significant questions after the first interview.”
Stachura “spent time attacking the credibility of witnesses rather than describing or explaining why he would be alone in his office with (the student) with the lights off, the futon extended into a bed, and with what a witness described as post-coital smells emanating from the room,” Morton wrote.
Stachura received notice on Sept. 15, 2020, that Morton determined he’d violated university policy by having “a consensual sexual relationship with a student over whom he had direct authority.” The appeal denial arrived a month later. In the denial, Leung noted Stachura “contended that the investigator falsified evidence.” Leung rejected that argument.
A reckoning for CSU
The focus on how CSU, the nation’s largest public university, handles violations of gender and sexual harassment policies based on federal laws known as Title IX followed then-Chancellor Joseph I. Castro’s sudden resignation in February. It followed a USA Today report that as president of Fresno State University he failed to take proper action about sexual-harassment complaints against a subordinate. An investigation that CSU trustees ordered found Castro mishandled the matter. The trustees also ordered an ongoing review of cases at each of the system’s 23 campuses. Chico State was reviewed in September, said Michael Uhlenkamp, CSU spokesman.
Also in February, the Mercury News reported, former San Jose State President Mary Papazian ignored dire warnings upon taking office in 2016 that an athletic trainer was inappropriately touching female athletes. She didn’t act for three years. The fallout cost the school millions of dollars in settlements. The U.S. Justice Department now monitors SJSU’s Title IX compliance.
The threat allegations are also revealed amid heightened concerns over campus and workplace violence following the fatal shooting of a University of Arizona professor and the shootings of Virginia Walmart workers last month by a supervisor. They also arise a year after a worker at the Valley Transportation Authority in San Jose killed nine co-workers and himself in one of California’s deadliest workplace shootings.
Records across the CSI system show five employees (besides Stachura) had been found in inappropriate consensual relationships that were resolved between 2017 and early 2022. Three occurred at Chico State. The others involved San Francisco State and CSU San Bernardino. Records show the employees either resigned or were fired.
Chico State police officer Richard Gridley and kinesiology professor Michael Regan resigned before they were disciplined, records show. The university fired tenured professor Christopher Marks when an investigation concluded he had two banned relationships with students. Documents on those cases haven’t yet been released.
Summary information CSU released this year on Title IX and related cases resolved over five years shows 67 out of 103 resulted in employees leaving either by termination, resignation or retirement prior to being disciplined or by a contract or appointment not being renewed. Some facing termination dropped appeals and resigned, common moves in California public employment that eases finding work elsewhere.
Stachura, 44, received a doctorate in cell and molecular biology from the University of Pennsylvania in 2006. He did postdoctoral research at UC San Diego before joining Chico State.
It wasn’t the career Stachura envisioned, King told EdSource. The couple married in 2010. “He was angry about being at Chico State. He thought other faculty members were below and beneath him,” she said. “He was angry when another faculty member would win an award, especially a female. He was angry and upset that he wasn’t a professor at Stanford.”
Stachura advanced from assistant to associate professor in 2016. His salary and benefits for 2020 totaled about $130,000, records show. He works primarily with zebrafish, a minnow used in nervous- and immune-system research. His pickup truck has vanity license plates: ZBRAFSH.
He also works part time for two biotech companies. Between 2016 and 2022, Stachura published or co-published at least 25 papers in academic journals, National Library of Medicine indexes show.
‘I fought this as hard as I could’
Chico State offered Stachura an “informal resolution” of his affair case that Provost Debra Larson approved on Dec. 1, 2020.
“I fought this as hard as I could. I decided to settle,” Stachura told EdSource.
Larson didn’t respond to questions.
Ann Olivarius, an international women’s rights attorney, said in an interview with EdSource that Stachura “acted egregiously and inappropriately by any analysis.” She also said Stachura created a hostile work environment for his colleagues by having sex in his office and allegedly threatening to kill the professors after they complained.
She also criticized Chico State for the settlement. The school, she said, is saying “it’s OK to conduct yourself like (Stachura) conducted himself and if you are working in the same department, well, shut up.”
Stachura’s reapplication for tenure was approved in the spring of 2021. That June, campus President Gayle Hutchinson announced Chico State’s Faculty Recognition and Support Committee had chosen Stachura as “Outstanding Professor” for the 2020-21 academic year. Neither Hutchinson nor committee members knew of the findings about the affair because the investigation was confidential and the campus was on Covid lockdown, said Staples, Chico State spokesman. “While the award was not rescinded, the university has since put in stronger protocols to ensure that faculty members who are nominated for future awards represent the university’s values.”
After the case ended, Stachura’s marriage collapsed. King filed for divorce in July 2021 and requested a restraining order, claiming he was “a very heavy drinker” and repeatedly threatened her. “I am very concerned about David’s mental state.” She told the court his alleged affair continued.
She then disclosed the alleged threat against the professors. Judge Sandra McLean granted the restraining order, requiring Stachura to surrender his guns to Chico Police.
King’s attorney informed the professors of the alleged threat.
Word spread quickly through the biology department. Wolfe went to court and copied documents. “My colleagues were completely freaked out,” he told EdSource.
Wolfe sent an email with the subject line DANGER to College of Natural Sciences Dean David Hassenzahl on Aug. 16, 2021. The two professors “are both terrified,” he wrote.
Stachura, Wolfe wrote, had already shown “a history of impulsive and destructive behavior,” Wolfe wrote, a reference to the affair. The threats made “it impossible for (Stachura) to continue as a colleague.”
Hassenzahl said the university would investigate. Stachura was put on paid leave two days after Wolfe’s alert. He remained on leave for about a month, then returned to work.
One professor who was not a target of the alleged threat was so concerned when Stachura returned that she soon left the university.
Chico State “didn’t act to protect the faculty, staff or students,” Cawa Tran, now a University of San Diego professor, said in an interview. She said she knows of other professors actively looking to leave and another who turned down a biology department job after learning of the allegations.
“The university essentially forced us all to continue working with him. And this was especially difficult for the women in the department.”
Tran said. “I left due to psychological damages sustained from the fear, anger and injustice I felt from the situation.”
Daniel J. Willis, EdSource data journalist, and Rick Silva of the Chico Enterprise-Record contributed to this story.