Practice for Class Project Goes Violently Awry

A University of Hartford drama student "got into his character" while he was preparing for a project and repeatedly stabbed two classmates, police say.

April 4, 2019
 
Jake Wascher

The University of Hartford students gathered Sunday afternoon to rehearse a movie scene as part of a class assignment.

Jake Wascher, a 21-year-old drama student, had been cast as the lead character in their interpretation of the science fiction thriller The Butterfly Effect, a 2004 movie starring Ashton Kutcher, The Hartford Courant reported.

Partway through a scene that involved a stabbing, screams erupted in the on-campus apartment where the students were practicing.

Wascher allegedly actually stabbed one of his classmates, another 21-year-old student who is the director of the film, with a 6- to 7-inch kitchen knife, in the chest, back and arm, according to a police report. During the attack, a third student participating in the project, a 19-year-old, yelled at Wascher to stop. Wascher “turned his attention” to the other student and drove the knife into his chest and back and then threw the knife at him, hitting his chest, where it remained lodged, according to witnesses quoted in the police report.

Police said the motivation for the bloody assault is unknown. The police report stated that when Wascher was interviewed, he said he “was not acting” and was curious about what it was like to stab someone and get “into his character,” the report said. He “acted a little to [sic] hard.”

Local media reported that the 19-year-old was listed as being in critical condition at St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center’s intensive care unit until Tuesday, when he was upgraded to “stable.” The 21-year-old student, who suffered six stab wounds, was stable and was released from the hospital Monday, police said.

Wascher was charged with two counts of attempted murder and two counts of first-degree assault and is being held on $1 million bail.

University officials issued a statement on Sunday that said the “community is deeply saddened by the serious incident.”

“While there is no ongoing threat to campus, we recognize that this isolated incident is frightening and unsettling,” the statement reads. “The university will provide counseling services to members of our campus community in need of support or assistance.”

They followed up with a second statement on Monday that said university administrators were “in contact with the families of our injured students and they remain in our thoughts. At this time, we are focused on providing support services for our entire campus community.”

A university spokeswoman declined to provide further comment.

Police said they received a 911 call at around 1:30 p.m. on Sunday -- when they arrived on campus, they found only the two seriously injured students. Witnesses in the apartment identified Wascher as the attacker, and the campus was locked down while law enforcement scoured the grounds for him.

About two hours later, an officer spotted Wascher leaving a wooded area near the campus. Lieutenant Paul C. Cicero of the Hartford Police Department said during a news conference on Sunday that Wascher ran back into the woods but “immediately surrendered himself” when police approached him. He told them, “I’m going to comply,” and was promptly arrested, according to the police report.

Wascher does not have a criminal record, Cicero said.

The Hartford case is an “extreme scenario” likely anchored in challenges faced by one student and not a reflection on acting majors, said Harvey Young, president of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education and dean of the College of Fine Arts at Boston University.

Acting programs teach students to portray characters on stage and at the same time separate themselves from the characters’ psychological turmoil, Young said.

Young said safety should be the top priority in staging intimate contact, including stage combat and any scene in which characters touch.

“Every so often, you will hear about an actor accidentally being slapped in a scene as a result of poorly timed preplanned choreography, but stabbing with an actual knife is something that never happens,” Young wrote in an email. “And should never happen.”

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