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Scuffle with lobster man puts students in hot water

Tuesday, March 05, 2002

By Bill Schackner, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

On the campus of Carnegie Mellon University, the questions yesterday flowed like melted butter.

Did the art student dressed as a lobster really fend off a dozen intruders who tried to get a predawn peek at his do-it-yourself campus house?

Did he manage to get his claws around one of them?

And if so, can he count the scuffle as credit toward his performance art project?

A tale that was strange to begin with has taken yet another odd turn. Fine arts major William Kofmehl III, whose university-funded work already has been hotly debated on the Internet from points as far away as New Zealand, is now a crime victim.

Early Saturday, campus police cited four students after a disturbance at 2:41 a.m. outside the three-story structure that Kofmehl is building from scrap wood next to Doherty Hall, a classroom building. He moved into the half-finished domicile Feb. 1, wearing a lobster suit and vowing to speak to no one for three months.

"University police said they got a call saying a group of about 12 males was trying to break into the structure," Carnegie Mellon spokeswoman Kyle Fisher Morabito said. "The officers witnessed some males going up the stairs and apprehended four of them. They admitted that they had done some damage to the property."

Jeremy Nearhoof, 21; Carmelo Piccione, 20; Edward Woroniecki, 19; and Christopher Pierce, 21, received summary citations for disorderly conduct and criminal mischief, Morabito said. The four, all members of the Delta Upsilon fraternity, must appear before a magistrate, she said.

Exactly what transpired as the lobster man's home was threatened is still being sorted out.

Under the headline "Brouhaha at the Crabshack," the student newspaper, The Tartan, reported yesterday that Kofmehl gave chase and placed one of the intruders in a headlock. Morabito, though, said campus police could not confirm that.

Kofmehl, 21, a senior who grew up in West View, has received $1,000 from a university fund that encourages undergraduate research and artistic activity. His grant proposal said that by forming a new persona and staying silent, he wants to explore speech and communication behavior.

He intends to record his utterances while sleeping to see how they are affected by daytime speechlessness, and then he plans to translate those utterances into something artistic, the school said.

Articles in The Tartan and the student newspaper at the University of Pittsburgh, The Pitt News, have sparked reactions not just on their own campuses but from across the United States and in countries such as England, Mexico and Australia.

"This performance artist in my opinion has marvelously captured the pain; the gestalt of solitary life within walls. A lobster does not wish to speak in his enclosure. Nor can a lobster speak," Cristoph Stoelz wrote in an e-mail to The Pitt News. "In Berlin, we applaud and salute you, Mr. Lobster."

But a woman identifying herself as a Carnegie Mellon graduate saw no art there. "I am appalled and disgusted," she wrote. "Does this student's parents know what their tuition payments are buying them?"

Yet another student simply had this to say: "You make me hungry for lobster. I want to eat Lobster Boy, if only just to end his suffering. I must order a large canister of melted butter right now."

Paul Tellers, the university architect, said that if Kofmehl intends to reside in the structure, safety and sanitary guidelines must be followed. But, though he described the project as extremely unusual, he said facilities officials on campus aren't about to get into a fray over its artistic value.

"We don't make judgments about weird, and I'm pretty proud that we don't," he said.

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