Inexplicable Violence Again Shakes Va. Tech

Police say the victim in the gruesome Virginia Tech slaying had recently arrived from China and knew the suspect. Video by AP
By Brigid Schulte and Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 23, 2009

Xin Yang, 22, arrived at Virginia Tech on Jan. 8 to begin her graduate studies in accounting. On a school form asking for emergency contacts, she gave two names: her mother and a fellow graduate student from China, Haiyang Zhu. About 7 p.m. Wednesday, as the two students drank coffee at the Au Bon Pain cafe on campus, without so much as a harsh word, a raised voice or a scream, Zhu pulled out a kitchen knife and cut off her head, authorities said.

Two frantic 911 calls were made to campus police at 7:06 p.m., officials said, one from inside the cafe and one from outside. When police arrived one minute and 15 seconds later, Yang was dead.

"It was a horrific crime scene," Virginia Tech Police Chief Wendell Flinchum told reporters at a news briefing yesterday.

Police recovered the knife and took Zhu, 25, a PhD student in agricultural and applied economics from Ningbo, into custody without protest. According to an affidavit, Zhu was holding Yang's head when police arrived.

When police asked if Zhu had other weapons, he informed them that there were more in his backpack. The affidavit says that Zhu's backpack at the cafe was found to have "several edged weapons" along with a laptop computer.

He has been charged with first-degree murder and is being held without bond at the Montgomery County jail. His attorney, Stephanie Cox, did not return a phone call.

Officials said police were investigating whether anyone tried to intervene and how long the attack lasted.

The killing is the first at the campus in southern Virginia since the horrific massacre in April 2007, the worst mass shooting by an individual in U.S. history, that left 33 students and teachers dead. The rampage ended when shooter Seung Hui Cho turned one of his two handguns on himself.

"An act of violence like this one brings back memories of the April 16 tragedy, and I have no doubt that many of us feel especially distraught," Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger wrote in a letter to the campus community yesterday.

Police are investigating the incident, interviewing seven witnesses, friends and roommates, and trying to establish the nature of the relationship between the two. Yang, who was from Beijing, lived by herself in the Graduate Life Center. Zhu lived off campus.

Virginia Tech officials released Yang's name after finding a translator and contacting her mother in China late Wednesday night. The Graduate Life Center was closed until 7 a.m. yesterday. All classes were held on schedule. Au Bon Pain remains closed. A woman who answered the phone there said they were not making any comments.

Wednesday's stabbing was also the first real test of the university's new e-mail and text-message alert system that warns students and subscribers of any danger. The system was implemented after university officials were roundly criticized in 2007 for waiting more than two hours after the first shootings to warn the campus community that a killer was on the loose. An investigating panel said that delay cost lives.

After Wednesday's stabbing, the first e-mail and text alerts were sent at 7:44 p.m., said Larry Hincker, a Virginia Tech spokesman, warning students and teachers that a "murder" had taken place and telling everyone to stay where they were. More than 60,000 messages were sent in 33 minutes, Hincker said.

Some students said they didn't get the message until almost 8:20 p.m. and complained that they heard the news by word of mouth. "I was really angry," said Megan Meadows, a Virginia Tech senior and friend of Reema Samaha, who was among those killed in 2007. "It took 20, 25 minutes to get the message, and by then I'd already heard the news," Meadows said. "Why have this expensive alert system if it's not going to function properly?"

At 7:37 p.m. -- before any university alerts were sent -- the college newspaper posted a few sentences online telling readers that the incident had occurred and had been contained. The Graduate Center is near where the newspaper is housed.

"We wanted to get the word out," said Editor-in-Chief David Grant, 22, of Burke. The main goal was to let people know what was going on "so people feel safe."

Hincker defended the e-mail system. "I'm still getting carping that, 'If this took place at 7:06, why didn't I know about it at 7:07?' so I think there are some unrealistic expectations," he said. "The police asked me to send out the message so they could focus on their job. I was literally walking in the door at 7:30, taking off my coat, booting up the computer. It took about 15 minutes to get the information gathered and sent. We were also trying to reach tens of thousands of people. So the notification system worked."

News of the killing left many on the Virginia Tech campus stunned and sobered. People who knew Zhu were shocked.

Unlike Cho, who had a series of run-ins with mental health professionals and campus police and faculty members concerned about his violent writings, Zhu, who arrived on campus last fall, had no apparent history of trouble. Unlike Cho, who was a loner, Zhu's Facebook page shows a photo of him standing casually and smiling. He has 40 friends on the site's network.

"I had him as a teaching assistant in one of my classes. He was always very pleasant and willing to help any student that needed it," said Josh Stephens. "He never seemed like someone who would do something like this. He was almost always smiling."

Ken Stanton, 30, said he and other graduate students who knew Zhu were shaken yesterday and trying to make sense of the news.

"He wasn't like Cho at all. He's a very social, outgoing guy," Stanton said. "He was just a normal outgoing kind of person like the rest of us."

"We couldn't have seen this coming," he said.

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