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Late one Friday night, a group of stu­dents scrambled up the stairs in The F. W. Stock & Sons Mill.

The freshmen saw the climb as a rite of passage, while the seniors made the trek out of habit.

An intox­i­cated freshman wan­dered away from the group.

Sud­denly, the floor dis­ap­peared beneath him.

A female student screamed. But the freshman man had latched onto the sides of the pit.

His legs dangled beneath him as bits of rubble dropped 75 feet onto a slab of con­crete.

Unin­ten­tionally, he had dis­covered one of many precipices in the labyrinthine pas­sages of the old mill complex.

Since the mill closed in 2003, both college stu­dents and local kids have grown to con­sider the mill a gigantic play­ground.

But the land is still private property. This summer, police iden­tified three high school stu­dents and four college stu­dents as tres­passers.

“Right now, these cases are pending a decision on my part as to a res­o­lution that would be short of criminal charges,” Hillsdale County Pros­e­cuting Attorney Neil Brady said.

Dean of Men Aaron Petersen said that warrant requests for the stu­dents have been issued by the Hillsdale City Police Department but any action is pending Brady’s review.

“When stu­dents take respon­si­bility and try to make their wrongs right, my expe­rience is that Mr. Brady will work with them outside of formal charges,” Petersen said.

However, Brady said that future vio­lators will probably not receive similar grace.

“Future vio­la­tions will most likely involve charges for tres­passing and entry without per­mission,” he said.

“The first objective is to get this to stop,” Petersen said. “There seems to be a will­ingness to pros­ecute and be aggressive crim­i­nally if that’s what it takes.”

After uniden­tified vandals smashed antique windows in the mill this summer in a sep­arate instance, owner of the property Jeffrey Horton worked with Hillsdale police to increase sur­veil­lance on the premises. This led to the iden­ti­fi­cation of several tres­passers in August.

“It’s been a problem over the years,” Detective Brad Martin said. “After Dr. Horton pur­chased the land, it was really frus­trating.”

Horton said that the frus­tration is not just over the van­dalism and tres­passing. Horton and Martin said that they are pri­marily con­cerned for student safety.

“I under­stand that young people are looking for thrills and adventure but that building is some­where they should stay away from,” Martin said.

Large gaps in the floor of the two main buildings orig­i­nally con­tained mill machinery, but now nearly invisible chasms, as narrow as three square feet and as deep as 75 feet, are scat­tered around in the darkness of the already haz­ardous mill.

In the silos, stair­cases wind upward approx­i­mately 150 feet, with rusting equipment on each floor. The group of college stu­dents climbed onto the roof of one silo via a ladder.

“My office cannot under­react to those sorts of vio­la­tions because lives are at stake,” Petersen said.

Horton said that stu­dents climb the mill because of the mys­tique and the tra­dition.

“This is one of those things like climbing Central Hall but it’s more fea­sible,” said one of the stu­dents caught in the mill. “But risky business is risky business, and we got caught.”

Horton said he hopes to ren­ovate the aban­doned buildings.

“Someday, like a phoenix, the mill will rise from the ashes and become some­thing new.”