Dr. Rosemary Erickson is petite – she’s maybe all of 5’ 4” – with stylish blond hair, bright blue eyes and perfectly painted fingernails. She doesn’t look like a violent criminal. But, she can think like one.
A nationally known forensic sociologist, Erickson has spent the last 30 years studying murderers, rapists and robbers in an effort to prevent crime and improve security both domestically and abroad.
Today, as president of Athena Research Corporation, she provides security training and consulting, and serves as an expert witness for high-profile, high-exposure, violent premises liability civil cases throughout the U.S.
So how’d a girl from Davis, South Dakota, end up becoming a criminal research expert and media consultant for national investigative reporting shows including ABC’s “20/20,” NBC’s “Dateline” and CBS’s “Dr. Phil Show”?
It all started with a telephone and a party line.
Erickson grew up on a farm near Davis that didn’t have electricity or running water until she was six years old. Each morning, her father started the coal stove of the one-room country school she attended.
When a telephone was finally installed in her home, it included a party-line feature that allowed multiple users to participate on one call.
“I would sit up on the buffet in our house and listen in on the calls,” Erickson said, remembering. “When you grow up on a farm, you spend a lot of time alone; my curiosity kicked in. The social interaction attracted me.”
Erickson completed high school in Centerville, South Dakota, and arrived at Augustana in the fall of 1960.
She majored in psychology but said she was unsure of her career path at the time.
“I never really had a plan. Even when I majored in psychology, I really only knew what I wasn’t going to do,” she said. “I think it’s OK when life evolves, as long as you don’t live it by default.”
She counts Dr. J. Earl Lee (music) and Dr. Orv Westby (sociology) and Dr. Stanley Olson (philosophy) among her most influential professors.
“What was great about Augustana then, and what’s still great about it today, were the small classes and the fact that you really knew your professors and that they knew you.”
After graduating in 1964, she went on to work as a mental health representative for the State of South Dakota before landing a job researching “mental health catchment areas” in San Diego, California.
In 1966, she took a research position at the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute in La Jolla, California, a think tank that had earned government funding to study crime as it related to the “War on Poverty.” She also earned her master’s degree in sociology from San Diego State University.
“At first, it scared me,” Erickson said. “I ended up having former murderers, rapists and bank robbers on my staff – so we could study why they chose the path they did.”
The 7-Eleven Project
While at the Institute, Erickson co-led a major study to improve security at convenience stores. Her team conducted interviews with former bank robbers and led experiments at 7-Eleven stores throughout southern California. After extensive analysis, Erickson’s team concluded that by implementing targeted security measures, such as posting signs near the cash register promoting “limited cash on hand,” installing height markers near doorways and providing employees with crisis training, store robberies would decrease significantly.
The 7-Eleven corporation implemented Erickson’s recommendations in all 5,000 of its stores and saw the number of store robberies decrease significantly. Shortly thereafter, convenience stores nationwide followed 7-Eleven’s example. The result: U.S. convenience store robberies fell sharply.
Today, her husband, Arnie Stenseth ‘66, works with her, visiting prisons to interview prisioners for her research.
Currently, many of Erickson’s security recommendations are still in place at convenience stores around the world today.
“Your hope and dream as a researcher is that your work will be used. I had no idea it would be used for 40 years."
Erickson went on to earn her Ph.D. in sociology and justice from American University and has taught sociology at San Diego State University and AU.
Erickson has owned and operated her own company for 35 years and now focuses primarily on premises liability cases all over the country – high-exposure, violent-crime cases that happen on a particular premises, such as a hotel, casino, hospital parking ramp or apartment complex.
“I serve as a scientific expert witness. I bring the science to the case,” she said.
Over her career, she’s written multiple journal articles and her book, “Armed Robbers and Their Crimes,” is used by security planning managers throughout the U.S. She is routinely quoted in national publications, including the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times.
Looking ahead, Erickson said she’s interested in researching and writing about cyber crime. She’s particularly interested in studying the cases of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and former NSA contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden.
In recognition of Erickson’s life-long work to prevent crime and improve the safety of communities, she will receive the Alumni Achievement Award at Viking Days this fall.