On an unseasonably warm January night some 30 years ago, Etta Alexander returned to her mobile home after her shift at the A & B Cafe in downtown Winchester, Indiana. A light snow was falling when two men, carrying out a $4,000 murder-for-hire plot, entered Alexander’s trailer. Alexander was shot and killed, her home doused with kerosene and then set on fire.
Today, one of the men convicted in the plot, Jason Buie, works as a part-time contract faculty member in Ball State’s computer science department. He maintained his innocence throughout the trial and continues to do so today.
Although criminal records like this raise questions for university hiring managers and human resources personnel, policies and procedures at Ball State and other Indiana universities contend that a criminal conviction cannot immediately disqualify a job candidate.
While some experts say there is no crime too great to disqualify someone from working at a university, others would say hiring officials would be better off excluding those with a violent past. However, in Indiana little guidance is given about what to consider when hiring an ex-convict.
Additionally, federal law states employers cannot exclude job applicants with a criminal past simply because of their convictions.
This complex situation raises some questions: if there is a line in the sand, what is it? What responsibilities do hiring managers have to students, employees and the applicant? What crimes are too great to disqualify someone from employment at a university?
Detective and volunteer firefighter Jay Harris was attending a going-away party for his fire chief on the night of Jan. 25, 1990, when he got called out on a house fire.
When Harris arrived at Alexander’s mobile home, he and his fellow firefighters found a trailer engulfed in flames. When they finally put out the fire they found Alexander’s charred body inside.
The fire was originally thought to be an accident caused by a kerosene heater until an autopsy was performed on the body the following day.
“We went in and the sheriff said, ‘We got a little problem with the fire last night,’” Harris said in an interview with The Daily News. “I said, ‘What’s that?’ and he said, ‘That body has a buckshot [sic] in it.’”
That discovery launched a months-long investigation into the murder, which ultimately landed three people in jail — and on death row for a time.
Reagan Allen, DN File
The story didn’t begin on the day of the murder, though. In the weeks leading up to the crime, Scott McCord, a then 42-year-old Muncie business owner, told several people he wanted someone killed and said he was willing to pay $4,000 for the act.
McCord originally asked then 17-year-old John Sheets, an acquaintance, to kill one of his employees, according to a written statement by Sheets’ friend Val Haase. Haase wrote that McCord later asked then 18-year-old Jason Buie to commit the murder. Haase said Buie was “fascinated by the idea.”
McCord allegedly told Buie he wanted the “b***h dead” and to “make it look like an accident,” according to Sheets’ written statement. The year before Alexander was murdered, McCord took out a $50,000 life insurance policy on her and made his then girlfriend, Pam Resler, the beneficiary, according to court documents. Resler later told police she was unaware of the policy.
On the night of Jan. 25, 1990, Buie and Sheets met with McCord in his Muncie home where Buie told McCord “he was going to do it,” according to Sheets’ statement. Buie requested a gun from McCord who then gave him a 12-gauge shotgun, according to court documents.
When the pair arrived at Alexander’s trailer, Buie and Sheets went up to the door and asked about a camper which Alexander’s roommate was trying to sell.
Sheets told police he was going to leave his name and phone number because Alexander’s roommate was not home at the time. Buie said he needed to get a pen and paper from the car.
Buie then went to the car, brought the shotgun into the mobile home and shot Alexander twice, according to Sheets’ statement. Alexander was shot once in the shoulder and once in her abdomen, according to the autopsy report.
Sheets originally told police during a psychological stress test that Buie went in the trailer and killed Alexander. Later Sheets admitted to police he went in the trailer with Buie. Buie has contradicted Sheets’s account.
Randolph County Courts, Documents Provided; Emily Wright, DN Photo Illustration
“I just stood there in a daze, so he grabbed a blanket off the bed and through [sic] it on her and he started yelling more,” Sheets wrote in his statement.
Buie then told Sheets to burn Alexander’s body and threatened to kill him if he didn’t, according to Sheets’ statement. After Buie threw a blanket over Alexander’s body, Sheets lit it on fire.
Sheets and Buie then got in the car where Buie told Sheets that if he ever said anything, he would “f*****g kill” him, according to Sheets’ statement.
Sheets later told police he and Buie then went to McCord’s house where Buie said “it’s done.”
A few months later, tips led police to arrest Buie, Sheets and McCord for what police described as “a murder for pay.”
During police interviews, Buie said Sheets was the one who had shot and killed Alexander. Buie’s lawyers claimed he just witnessed Alexander’s murder, and Buie maintained his innocence throughout the process.
“When he [the voice stress analyst] asked Buie if he shot her, the voice stress analysis guy said [Buie] was not being truthful,” Harris said. “And when Sheets said he did not shoot her, he was being truthful, is what the voice stress analysis guy told us.”
Charges were filed against Buie, Sheets and McCord in Randolph County. The prosecutor initially requested the death penalty for all three, but that request was later dropped due to the estimated $6 million expense for that type of trial.
Buie was charged with murder, conspiracy to commit murder and arson. According to the Indiana Criminal Code, a conspiracy to commit murder charge becomes a Level 1 felony if the conspiracy results in the death of another person, which in this case, it did.
The Palladium Item, Photo Provided
Kelly Bryan, Buie’s co-defense counsel, said in court Buie believed he was going to do a burglary. Buie had no knowledge of the gun in the car, Bryan said, or that Sheets intended to kill Alexander.
Buie’s first trial resulted in a hung jury and a mistrial was declared on March 13, 1991. Buie was tried again, and on Aug. 28, 1991, was convicted in Randolph Circuit Court of murder, conspiracy to commit murder and arson. On Sept. 25, 1991, Judge Zane Stohler sentenced Buie to 100 years in prison — 60 for murder, 20 for conspiracy to commit murder and 20 for arson. However, Buie appealed the convictions, and the case went directly to the Indiana Supreme Court in February 1992.
Even though the court said the prosecution proved the murder case against Buie, the justices ruled because of the double-jeopardy clause in the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which says a person cannot be tried twice for the same crime, Buie could not face both the murder and the conspiracy to commit murder charges simultaneously.
“It is apparent that to obtain Buie's conviction for conspiracy to commit murder, the State proved that Buie intentionally killed Etta Alexander,” the Court wrote in its opinion.
Two years after his original conviction, Buie’s murder conviction was reversed. His convictions of conspiracy to commit murder and arson were upheld. He was sentenced to 40 years in prison, but was released on Feb. 7, 2006, after he served nearly 15 years of his original sentence. While Buie served time for Level 1 and 2 felonies, his eventual career as an academic was not lost.
Looking back, Buie said in an interview with The Daily News that he feels he played some role in Alexander’s death.
“It definitely makes me feel sad and remorseful. You know, there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t wish that that could be changed, but the reality is that it can’t,” Buie said. “I mean, I didn’t pull the trigger, but I was there. So I bear a great deal of responsibility about it.”
Sheets was the only one who did not face a murder charge — he pleaded guilty to assisting a criminal. McCord was convicted of murder and conspiracy to commit murder.
Life after Prison
While incarcerated, Buie said he obtained two associates degrees — one from Ball State in 2000 and another from Indiana University in 2005. He obtained his bachelor’s degree from Ball State in May 2005.
Upon his release, he obtained a master's in information and communication sciences from Ball State in 2007, and a master's in computer science again from Ball State in 2016, according to his online Ball State profile.
Buie’s curriculum vitae (CV) states that he has had nine different jobs since being released from prison. In January of 2013, Buie was hired by Ball State as an instructor of computer science after completing a graduate assistantship with the university.
“He was a graduate student just like anybody else,” said Paul Buis, the chairperson of the department of computer science. “He had been doing a great job, got great reviews from the students. He was being monitored in the classroom and was doing a fantastic job, so we hired him.”
Buie is now pursuing a doctorate in education technology at Ball State.
“That was a lot of the motivation for me to get a Ph.D. because I felt like it was going to offset my past,” Buie said. “Then I realized it doesn’t matter if you have 10 Ph.D.s, people are either going to accept you or they’re not.”
Brynn Mechem, DN
Buis said he was aware of Buie’s past before hiring him, having read about Buie’s criminal history in the newspaper. After talking to him, Buis decided that Buie had moved past his history.
Because Buie was being brought in as a part-time instructor, a search committee was not required in order to hire him — the decision instead fell on Buis. Before extending an offer, given Buie’s past, Buis said he sought counsel from other faculty members and collected character references on Buie, per the university administration's request.
In order to not extend an offer to Buie, Buis said he would have to “discriminate against criminals, which I obviously don’t.”
“I think it’s reasonable to worry about — certainly recent offenses — that involve violence or sexual abuse issues,” Buis said. “Especially if the faculty member is going to be teaching minors, but we don’t do that here, on a university level.”
Buis said he hired Buie because “he, himself, committed no violent acts during the burglary."
“His partner, while they weren’t together, did something while they were breaking into a house,” Buis said. “Who pulled the trigger was not an undisputed fact ... Anyone who has watched a crime drama knows that you don’t have to kill someone to be convicted of murder. Simply participating in a felony in which someone is murdered might get you [in prison].”
While Buie previously taught on campus, he currently teaches four online classes at the university.
The Ball State Hiring Process
In order for a faculty or staff member to be hired by the university, they must go through several steps. For a person to become an instructor or professor, the process includes even more steps.
After a candidate is chosen, but before becoming officially employed, one must undergo a background check, which the university began conducting in 2011 — before Buie was hired. While the university would not specify how much or what type of background checks prospective employees undergo, state background checks can cost anywhere from $7 to $17, according to the Indiana Department of Insurance, and federal background checks cost $18, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Gracie Reiff, the Ball State compensation and human resources information manager, said this means the candidate has to have a “clear background check” with no “inappropriate convictions” in order to be hired. However, the background check only dates back seven years.
If employees do not work with minors and were hired prior to 2011, they did not and will not have a background check conducted.
When hiring a person with a criminal background, the hiring bodies must be able to answer 12 questions to ensure that the candidate is appropriate to work at the university. These questions include, but are not limited to:
- The nature and seriousness of the offense or conduct.
- The time elapsed since the conviction and/or completion of the sentence.
- The nature of the job sought.
- The number of offenses for which the individual was convicted.
University spokesperson Kathy Wolf said the university has a responsibility to follow “appropriate hiring procedures” and fully consider “all relevant information” about a potential candidate before extending an offer.
Is there a felony too great?
“If I see a conviction on somebody’s record, we look to see what’s the time frame, is this something that happened 30 years ago or something recent,” said Kate Stoss, Ball State director of university human resource services. “If somebody was convicted of a felony assault within the past two years, obviously that’s going to raise some red flags.”
A job applicant has no responsibility to disclose their criminal past on a Ball State application, Reiff said, and there is no crime that will automatically disqualify an applicant from a job at the university.
“It’s case-by-case. We look at each individual case,” Reiff said.
Catherine Mattice Zundel, a human resources professional who owns Civility Partners out of La Mesa, California, focuses on helping companies build better hiring cultures.
“These days we’re trying to create a more inclusive work environment, and that means accepting people for who they are ... even if they’ve made bad choices in the past,” Zundel said. “I think it’s important to make better, more positive, more inclusive, work environments. So including people who have criminal records is important to that process. The problem is, it can be hard to trust someone if they’ve done things in the past.”
Ex-convicts are often perceived as being a danger to others, but some research has shown the exact opposite. A study published in the Washington Post focused on how former felons perform in the military.
“Overall termination rates for negative reasons like misconduct or poor performance, with a couple of exceptions, were no higher for enlistees with criminal histories than they were for those without a criminal record,” the article said.
Ball State human resources officials and Zundel agree that there aren’t hard lines as to which felonies would be too great to disqualify somebody from a job. Instead, they suggested that hiring employees with criminal backgrounds depends on if the crime committed pertains to the job for which the employee is being considered.
“If I’m looking to hire someone and they had a DUI 15 years ago, who cares? But if I’m looking to hire somebody to do driving for my company and they had a DUI a year ago, that’s going to make me uncomfortable,” Zundel said. “I don’t know that you could really say, ‘These levels of felonies we are OK with and these we aren’t.’ It’s going to be more focused on, and in fact the law requires, that you can’t discriminate [against] somebody based on their background unless it’s related to your business.”
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission determined certain factors for employers to consider when a potential employee has a criminal history. Those factors are in line with Ball State’s follow-up questions for applicants with criminal backgrounds.
“The commission continues to hold that, where there is evidence of adverse impact, an absolute bar to employment based on the mere fact that an individual has a conviction record is unlawful under the Title VII,” the commission's policy states.
Ball State Human Resources assesses each new potential hire with a criminal background with little legislative guidance aside from what’s laid out in its internal policies, which are not accessible to the public.
At other schools in Indiana, procedures for hiring new faculty with felonies on their criminal records are similarly vague. Because no such state or federal guidelines exist, schools don’t have to adhere to any specific procedures when hiring new faculty or staff with criminal records.
Still, background checks are seemingly universal at colleges and universities across the state.
Andy Brantley, president and CEO of the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, said every college and university should have a required background check policy that applies to every new employee, including those in temporary positions.
“This is an essential risk management practice that should be used by every employer across the country,” Brantley said in an email to The Daily News. “The policy should also clearly state that disclosure of a conviction during the selection process will not necessarily exclude an applicant from consideration.”
Regardless, the existence of a conviction does not automatically disqualify an individual from employment at the universities analyzed by The Daily News. The decision to reject or separate an individual with an unreported conviction is solely at the discretion of the universities.
Buie did disclose his conviction to the university, but he says because people know, he is still unsure about his opportunities to move up within the university.
“I’ve never put in for any kind of promotions or anything because of that. Maybe I’m right, and maybe I’m not, who knows,” Buie said. “I always wonder if something happens, that’s my first thing I think — it’s because of [my past].”
At Indiana and Purdue Universities, pre-disclosing criminal convictions before a criminal background check is conducted is required. According to the universities’ hiring policies, unreported convictions that are revealed in the criminal history check could result in a withdrawal of the offer of employment unless the individual shows that the report is in error.
If the criminal history check reveals convictions which the individual disclosed in the application, the campus human resource office will review the report with the hiring department. Human resources personnel have liberties when weighing the considerations surrounding each potential new hires’ background check.
Ivy Tech’s hiring policy, for example, states that relevant considerations may include “the nature and number of the convictions, their dates, and the relationship that a conviction has to the duties and responsibilities of the position.” Similar considerations are listed in policies by other colleges and universities in Indiana.
Hiring policies at the University of Notre Dame, a private institution, differ slightly from public higher ed institutions. That university conducts background checks that emphasize criminal convictions in the past seven years, as well as pending felony charges, sex or violent offender listings and criminal convictions involving violence or sexual misconduct at any time in the potential new hires’ record.
Pre-disclosure of criminal convictions are not required by Notre Dame, and candidates are given seven days to respond to human resources with information showing that the data should not disqualify them from being hired. That information is taken into consideration by human resources personnel to deem if the candidate is still eligible for hire.
Is perception reality?
Despite all the legal ambiguity surrounding employment, some say ex-convicts can’t erase their pasts when it comes to their futures.
Harris, the original investigator on the murder case, said that if Buie has done his time, he has gone through the system — and in the eyes of the law — is rehabilitated. Though, he said, there are still always some uncertainties.
“I really don’t have an opinion one way or another,” Harris said. “But, you never know when one’s going to slip. I might not want my grandchildren to be taught by him.”
And for one Ball State student, who requested their name be withheld, the line is very clear.
“Knowing this information angers me,” the student said. “It lowers my confidence in the way that BSU hires professors. I expect my professors to be morally sound and not murderers.
“I think BSU should do thorough background checks. If something comes up on a background check that severe [murder], they should not be considered a candidate. If BSU is not drawing the line at murder, where are they drawing it?”
Buie said he understands people’s apprehensions when they learn about his past, but after getting to know him, they learn that he’s a different person. And he thinks the person he is now should have a chance.
“What do [people] want me to do, work at McDonald’s? I’ll be the best McDonald’s worker there ever was. That’s not going to benefit a lot of other people,” Buie said. “The amount of people with criminal pasts is large. It’s a significant portion of the population, and if you try to exclude people based on that, you’re excluding a lot of people. A) it could potentially benefit them [ex-convicts] and B) it could potentially benefit other people.”