Mission Improbable: Past heist of UK statistics test netted 16 students

The attempted burglary of a statistics exam Tuesday by two University of Kentucky students wasn’t the first time someone had the idea. A similar case 30 years ago turned into one of the biggest cheating cases in UK history.

At the end of the fall 1986 semester, someone broke into a statistics instructor’s office in the Patterson Office Tower and stole an exam. The problems were worked, then the completed exam was distributed to other students, according to news accounts from that time.

They might have gotten away with it, except that the designated cheater made mistakes that showed up over and over on other students’ work.

“It was his mistakes and anomalies that began to show up on several papers,” then-statistics department chairman David Allen told the Herald-Leader at the time. “We had no suspicion until after the exam was given.”

Also, an anonymous caller told an instructor that copies of the exam had made the rounds with students. Someone told police that a set of keys to the office could be found under a mailbox at Euclid Avenue and Linden Walk.

The department held all grades for that semester because officials couldn’t figure out how many students had received the purloined exam. Some students said it had been distributed within three fraternities.

In the end, 16 students were punished for cheating. Three students failed the class and were suspended for a semester. The others received a failing grade in the class.

UK spokesman Kathy Johnson said that in 2015-16, the last year compiled, 28 cases of cheating were referred to the Office of Student Conduct.

On Wednesday, UK police said they were investigating a “Mission Impossible”-style attempted burglary of a statistics exam from an instructor’s office in the Multidisciplinary Science Building. Police said one student, Henry Lynch, climbed through the building’s air ducts and dropped into the office from the ceiling, but his instructor, John Cain, returned to his office to catch him and another student in the act.

Police charged Lynch, 21, and Troy Kiphuth, 21, with third-degree burglary. Lynch later told police that he’d used the same method to steal an exam earlier in the semester, and that he had tried earlier in the evening to take the exam but returned after he was unable to find it.

The attempted burglary, first reported by the Herald-Leader, has gained national exposure this week, with stories in The New York Times, Time and NBC News’ Today.

Linda Blackford: 859-231-1359, @lbblackford