BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Nobel winners and award-winning business and music schools attract some of the world's brightest students to Indiana University. A reputation as one of the nation's top party schools attracts others.
Into this mix walked Lauren Spierer, a bubbly 20-year-old from Greenburgh, N.Y., with a flair for fashion who friends say was drawn to IU because she liked the school spirit and big campus. Spierer went missing last week after drinking with friends at one of the town's most popular bars. She was last seen walking home alone.
Her disappearance highlights the danger drinking can present in college towns and calls to mind similar cases from elsewhere. Wisconsin police have never made an arrest in the 2007 slaying of 22-year-old Kelly Nolan, who disappeared after a night of bar-hopping near the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her body was found weeks later in a ditch south of the city.
Male students at Iowa State University, Middlebury College in Vermont and the University of California, Riverside also have gone missing after drinking, although in those cases their deaths were ruled accidental.
As police and volunteers continue their search for Spierer, questions have swirled about how a young woman who isn't even 5 feet tall got into a bar and served alcohol in a city that Indiana excise police patrol more regularly than any other place in the state.
Indiana University's nearly 2,000-acre campus about 50 miles south of Indianapolis is a picturesque mix of tree-lined paths and limestone buildings dating to the late 19th century. The school touts top-notch academic programs, but it's also consistently ranked as a top party school by the Princeton Review, earning the top spot in 2005 and consistently making the top 15 since then.
The city's nightlife centers on a main drag just steps from the stately campus, with bars and clubs offering live music and drink specials within easy walking distance. Students say they weren't surprised that Spierer felt comfortable walking to her apartment alone, even late at night.
"We usually take short walks for granted," said Anita Megha, a 22-year-old in optometry school. "We're not really used to this kind of stuff happening in Bloomington."
Police say Spierer spent the evening with friends at Kilroy's Sports Bar, a sprawling complex with a sand-covered outdoor beach area, rooftop deck and nightly drink specials that are so popular that lines to get in often stretch around the building. She left about 2:30 a.m., leaving her cell phone and shoes in the bar.
Police have said Spierer was last seen by a friend, who they did not name, as she walked to a corner near his apartment about 4:30 a.m. June 3.
They have dismissed media reports that Spierer was involved in a fight the night she vanished. An attorney for a friend who was with Spierer after she left the bar said his client was punched in the face by someone at her apartment complex.
Attorney Carl Salzmann said Corey Rossman doesn't know who punched him and doesn't remember the incident or what happened after.
But Salzmann said Rossman was not the last person to see Spierer. He said Spierer accompanied Rossman to his apartment after he was hit, his roommate put him to bed and she left. The roommate and others saw her hours later, the attorney said.
Rossman is cooperating with police, who have searched his Jeep Grand Cherokee and examined his credit card and cell phone records, Salzmann said. He said his client gave a DNA sample Friday. Police have said they are talking to 10 people "of interest" in the case but declined to call any suspects.
Officials at Kilroy's, where "missing" posters with Spierer's photograph now hang, won't say whether she was asked for identification to make sure she was of legal drinking age before she entered the bar.
Students in Bloomington say it's common for those who are underage to have fake IDs, and Travis Thickstun, the public information officer for the Indiana Excise Police, said about a third of the alcohol citations the force issues are for possession of a fake ID.
But it's not known whether Spierer had one. Police have said she was drinking but declined to elaborate. A police spokesman didn't immediately respond to a message inquiring whether she had a fake ID, and her friends have been reluctant to talk about the issue.
Campus officials and police have tried to curtail drinking, although it appears they've had little success.
IU students must take an online course about alcohol before enrolling, and students hear about the topic again at orientation, said Pete Goldsmith, the university's dean of students. IU has banned alcohol and drugs on university property, and its penalties for those who violate the policy include expulsion, referral for prosecution and completion of rehabilitation programs.
Thickstun said excise police check bars in Bloomington more than those in other cities because of a history of arrests and alcohol citations there. Bloomington and the surrounding county had the most alcohol tickets issued to individuals in 2008 – nearly 1,500, most of them in the city that's home to 40,000 college students and 70,000 permanent residents. In comparison, Indianapolis with nearly 786,000 residents and its surrounding county had only about 1,000 citations.
Yet Goldsmith said Bloomington is generally a safe place, and U.S. Department of Justice data back that up. The city reported no violent crimes in 2009, the last year for which information is available. Its police department has a motto on the side of its headquarters: A safe and civil city.
Until Spierer disappeared, most students shared that feeling and said they thought little of walking home by themselves after a night on the town.
"It hit close to home," said Michelle Slaughter, a 22-year-old criminal justice major. "We do the same thing that she does."
Associated Press reporter Rick Callahan contributed to this story.