USC Professors Flock to Defend Custodian Accused of Stealing Backpack Full of Cash

Francisca Trigueros was fired without pay for locking a student's lost backpack in a supply closet. Now facing felony charges, her colleagues are defending her.

USC Professors Flock to Defend Custodian Accused of Stealing Backpack Full of Cash
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“She’s like this sweet aunt who’s just so caring, so warm, and so wonderful. Her smile is so powerful and so kind. She’s one of those colleagues that gives you positive energy. It was good to run into her early in the morning so you could just have that vibe throughout the day.”

This is how associate professor of psychology and computer science, Morteza Dehghani, describes Francisca Trigueros, a 61-year-old custodian at the University of Southern California, in an interview with Jezebel.

On March 10, Trigueros, who’s worked at USC for the last two decades, discovered an abandoned backpack as she cleaned the department of psychology during spring break. Among its contents was “a substantial amount of money,” and Trigueros, unable to locate any staffer from the lost and found, locked the backpack in a supplies closet for safe keeping.

Five days later, after the backpack was reported missing by a student, the Los Angeles Police Department arrested Trigueros on suspicion of felony theft. The USC first suspended her without pay and has since fired her. Trigueros now faces a court date on July 12. She and her family have not responded to a request for comment.

Since the arrest, scores of Trigueros’ colleagues within the psychology department, like Dehghani, have been organizing on her behalf—from privately collected donations via Venmo to circulating an open letter that’s been signed by over 10,000 people as of this weekend.

“Last I checked, you’re supposed to be counted innocent until you’re found guilty. She hasn’t been convicted of anything, yet she was handcuffed and taken to jail,” Dehghani told me.

Dehghani and Darby Saxbe, another psychology professor, first learned of Trigueros’ arrest via a message from their lab manager, Melissa Reyes, when they returned to campus after spring break. According to Dehghani and Saxbe, Reyes had forged a personal bond with Trigueros—one that was strong enough for Trigueros to contact Reyes immediately following the arrest to explain what happened.

As Reyes repeated to colleagues, Trigueros found the backpack in a classroom and tried turning it into the front desk, but no one was there, so she locked it in the closet. Days later, Trigueros was approached by campus public safety after they claimed to see her locking the backpack in the closet via surveillance video. Shortly thereafter, the LAPD arrested her.

Capt. Kelly Muniz, an LAPD spokeswoman, told the Los Angeles Times that detectives—who handle investigations of all potential felonies on campus — presented the case to prosecutors after reviewing surveillance footage of the incident. However, Muniz wouldn’t offer any further details regarding what exactly was captured on the video. As the open letter also reiterates, all of the bag’s contents (a reportedly large amount of cash) were still intact and untouched when the backpack was located.

When Reyes alerted the department, faculty members, who have known and trusted Trigueros for a number of years, were deeply upset by the apparent rush to judgment.

“One of my colleagues said, if it was one of us [professors] would the LAPD have done the same? I just don’t believe that would have happened,” said Dehghani.

“I’ve been at USC now for about a decade and in that time, I’ve worked in the same building and have probably chatted and said hello to Francisca dozens of times,” Saxbe added. “She’s just a really sort of sweet, older woman and a very friendly face in the department—somebody that we’ve trusted to clean our office spaces, lab spaces and the department. Those are spaces full of valuable equipment.”

That trust, as it seemed, wasn’t shared by Aramark, the food service, facilities, and uniform services provider through which the university subcontracted Trigueras and other campus custodians. Saxbe said the department sent a letter to Aramark advocating for Trigueros, to no avail.

“After an investigation involving the police and our HR team, the person in question was found to be in violation of our policies regarding lost and found items and is no longer with the company,” a spokesperson for Aramark told Jezebel via email.

“Just the idea that she would be treated like a thief or a criminal is just something that really surprised all of us, knowing her long history. She’s been in the custodial role at USC for 24 years,” said Saxbe.

Trigueros is reportedly filing a grievance against Aramark, according to Stephen Boardman, communications director of SEIU United Service Workers West, which represents custodians who work for Aramark at the university. At this time, university custodians are currently in contract negotiations with the company in hopes of better wages and more benefits.

The university said it’s cooperating with the investigation, though some faculty members say they’re frustrated with officials for failing to side with Trigueros.

“The silence that’s coming from USC is deafening,” said Dehghani. “I’m disappointed by my institution for not saying anything, or not doing the most basic things that you could do to try to help.”

Still, Dehghani says the department—and the USC community writ large—isn’t giving up anytime soon.

“We’re hoping that by [talking to media], her employer would understand that they can’t treat people as another disposable item, at least when it comes to USC and our department,” she said. “If they’re going to send someone to work with us, to become our colleague, then we’re gonna do whatever is in our power to try to protect them.”

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