Updated, 7:15 p.m.: The impostor’s real name is Birva, not Briva, Patel, according to court documents.
Update, 2:20 p.m.: According to a police spokesperson, the impostor's real name is Briva Patel. The 26-year-old woman, who used the name Rhea Sen while posing as a Columbia student, was charged with criminal trespass. Check back later for more updates.
Rhea Sen started off her August at Columbia as any new student would: going on bus tours around the city, taking photos with new acquaintances, discussing the perks and quirks of each residence hall. The only problem? Rhea Sen doesn’t go to Columbia.
Her nearly two-week stay on campus, during which she posed as a student, attended orientation events, and harassed first-years, came to an abrupt end on Thursday night as the young woman—about 20 years old and 5-foot-4—was escorted out of Low Library by officers from the 26th Precinct for trespassing.
Rebecca Smith, CC ’13 and an International Student Orientation Program leader, first noticed the woman on Aug. 24. She was eating cereal alone in John Jay Dining Hall and gave the name Rhea Sen.
She told Smith that she was registered for the Columbia Outdoor Orientation Program but had missed the program’s departure. Although she lived in Philadelphia, she said, she was born in India, so Smith offered to try to register her for ISOP if she wanted.
“That’s really nice, but I don’t want to cause any trouble,” Smith recalled Sen saying. The quiet girl gave Smith her phone number anyway, and Smith was given administrative approval to register her if she could get her UNI. Smith called the number, but Sen never answered.
Smith said she didn’t see her again for three days, but in the meantime, Sen went on a city tour and attended an Afropunk festival in Brooklyn, said ISOP leaders Louis Lin, SEAS ’15, and Bruno Rigonatti Mendes, CC ’14 and a Spectator finance and strategy deputy. These events were informal, Mendes said, so OLs did not check for the required ISOP badge—which Sen did not have, as she had never registered for ISOP nor even enrolled at Columbia.
She tried to befriend new students, including Cami Quarta, CC ’16, who believes she was the first first-year Sen met. “We thought she was just socially awkward,” Quarta said. “She said to me, ‘Are you a freshman? I’m kind of lost, do you want to hang out with me?’”
On her way to the party at the Bronx Zoo that capped off orientation week, Quarta and a friend wound up on the subway with Sen. Even though Quarta had been told to take the train to 180th Street, Sen showed her a text message she claimed to be from her OL instructing her to get off at an earlier stop and take a bus. The two heeded Sen’s advice, winding up far from their intended destination. A helpful police officer steered the three of them back on the subway.
“If I was alone, I don’t know where I would’ve wound up,” Quarta said. “That was probably the first sign that showed she might have been a risk.”
Soon, OLs started to get suspicious. Sen told Quarta that she lived on the sixth floor of Hartley Hall, and the next day that she lived in Carman 6B, which is not the way rooms in Carman Hall are numbered. Students said they were still unsure where she slept across the 14-day period she spent on campus. “People saw her running around, hiding in bushes, but as far as I know, nobody actually saw her in the residence halls,” Quarta said.
“Eventually, she tried to make friends with our first-year students, and it just got to the point where her lies were too obvious,” Lin said.
Katherine Cutler, a Student Affairs spokesperson, said administrators first became aware of Sen’s presence “after several odd interactions with OLs and ISOP participants.” Student Affairs notified Public Safety and instructed students to keep an eye out for Sen after realizing she was not a student.
“I was so freaked out when I found out she didn’t go here,” Smith said. “I always saw her on campus. She had different sets of clothes. She even had a big backpack during the school week.”
Lin and other ISOP leaders ran into Sen early last week and asked her what her story was. “She gave us a fake UNI and claimed she did not have her ID with her because she left it with a friend,” he said. “We persisted and she said she needed to go,” and then ran off.
Quarta said Sen went with a friend to a Literature Humanities class last week, but when the preceptor arrived, Sen left the room and waited in the hallway for two hours. On Sept. 5, she sent Quarta two Facebook messages littered with misspellings and dozens of English and Hindi curses. (See sidebar above right.)
Students again came across Sen on Thursday and alerted Public Safety, who took her into custody. Shortly before 9 p.m., the police removed her from Low. She did not respond to a reporter’s questions, but looked scared as officers led her into a waiting police car on College Walk and drove off to the precinct.
A police spokesperson said that no person with the last name Sen was arrested this month, but Cutler said on Friday, “The woman was taken into custody yesterday evening after yet another sighting on campus.”
Despite Sen’s behavior, Quarta said, “I never felt in danger. I feel better now [that she’s been removed from campus], but I’m more concerned about her ... she’s more of a risk to herself than she is to me.”