Birva Patel—perhaps better known as Rhea Sen, the young woman who posed as a new student throughout orientation week and the first week of classes—was arrested at least twice in the last week, after it became clear that she had falsely claimed to be a Columbia student for at least nine months.
Patel, 26, was arrested on the Morningside Heights campus for criminal trespass on Thursday and Saturday, according to court documents, and again on Monday night, according to witnesses. Despite reports from students that they encountered her on campus throughout last winter, spring, and summer, she went unnoticed by university authorities until the end of August, when International Student Orientation Program leaders reported her to their supervisor for suspicious behavior.
But on Monday—one day after Spectator reported her first arrest—students told Spectator that they had seen her on campus as early as December 2011, going by her real name and claiming to be a junior studying engineering.
Patel was arraigned on Sunday before being released on her own recognizance. The judge, Abraham Clott, issued a temporary order of protection, according to court documents, although it was unclear to whom it was issued. A police spokesperson was not able to confirm as of press time that Patel had been arrested again on Monday.
Six students said they met Patel earlier within the last year and were immediately put off by her unusual behavior.
“She just had this weird vibe,” said Anna Prouty, BC ’14, who met Patel at UNI Café in April. “I love awkward people—I’m kind of awkward—but it wasn’t like that. It was, ‘Hi, can I hang out with you?’”
Students who interacted with Patel gave similar characterizations of her behavior: She approached them and all but demanded to be friends, and she repeatedly lied about what she was studying and what school she was in. Three of those students received rambling, sometimes profanity-laced Facebook messages from her. Others saw her on the subway, often waiting on the platform as trains came and went.
One student, who requested anonymity because Patel knew his contact information, said he met Patel in December at the Toni Stabile Student Center in Pulitzer Hall, when they were both pulling all-nighters. Public Safety officers would check for Columbia ID cards nightly and the student said Patel had one, though when she stepped out to grab some food at UNI Café, she told him her card was demagnetized and asked if he would reopen the door for her.
Another student, who requested anonymity because Patel has her phone number, said she met Patel in March, also at UNI Café. Noticing Patel’s strong Indian accent and wanting to help the seemingly lonely woman make friends, the student—a member of the Hindu Students Organization—invited her to Chamak, a Pakistani event that would take place that evening. Patel and the student exchanged phone numbers, and Patel promised to come to Chamak, before backing out.
Patel also promised to go to Tamasha, a South Asian cultural showcase, and texted the student that she was in Roone Arledge Auditorium during the event. But she later texted that she had lied and “had to go out.” The student grew frustrated that Patel never seemed to follow through despite saying that she wanted to meet more people.
Janelle Bracken, Business ’13, met Patel in February in the lobby of Uris Hall. Patel told Bracken that she was an undergraduate student but had attended Business School happy hours on Thursdays. Bracken, relaying the encounter to her Business friends, learned that they had also seen her at happy hours and had been asked by her to log her into Uris computers. Patel Facebook-friended Bracken and asked if she wanted to go clubbing, and when Bracken declined, Patel vehemently denied attending the happy hours and cursed Bracken out.
Students who interacted with Patel said that while she seemed to know enough details about Columbia to make it plausible that she was a student, she sometimes blanked on basic facts.
“I said I went to Barnard, and she went, ‘What’s that?’” Prouty said.
Patel told the student in the Hindu Students Organization that she was a junior in Columbia College studying biomedical engineering—a major offered only at the School of Engineering and Applied Science. When Tanay Doctor, SEAS ’15, asked Patel if she liked working with Andrew Laine, the chair of the department, “she seemed to have no idea who he was,” Doctor said in an email.
Students who met her had different reactions to Patel’s lies. Some felt threatened, while others wrote them off as the behavior of an awkward student.
The HSO student grew suspicious of Patel when she gave her email address as firstname.lastname@example.org, considering Patel had said she went to CC. The student became even more suspicious when an email she sent to that address bounced.
“I felt unsafe. I felt like she was psychotic,” the student said.
Rachel Meirs, CC ’14, met Patel in May on South Lawn and was immediately “weirded out” by the many questions Patel asked her. Meirs grew even more suspicious when she saw Patel riding the subways alone late at night. After seeing Patel sleeping against a pole on the 42nd Street subway platform, Meirs began to write down every time she saw Patel, which eventually amounted to seven times.
“After I saw her at 42nd Street, I thought, this is actually really strange behavior,” Meirs said. “What I thought was that maybe she was just an insomniac, maybe she had nothing better to do at night. She always looked really tired whenever you would see her.”
“She just seemed weird,” Prouty said. “She didn’t seem dangerous.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Birva Patel had asked Janelle Bracken, Business ’13, to log her into computers in Uris Hall. In fact, Bracken had heard from other Business students that Patel had asked them to log her in. Spectator regrets the error.