Virginia Tech Suspect Served as Victim's Mentor on Campus

Candles and other items form a makeshift memorial for Xin Yang at the Graduate Life Center at Virginia Tech.
Candles and other items form a makeshift memorial for Xin Yang at the Graduate Life Center at Virginia Tech. (By Justin Cook -- Roanoke Times Via Associated Press)
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By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 24, 2009

At Virginia Tech, newly arrived international students from China are usually paired with other international students who have been at the school at least one semester to help them acclimate to their new environment. Xin Yang arrived on campus Jan. 8 and, university officials said, met her assigned buddy, Haiyang Zhu.

He spent the next two weeks showing her around campus, officials said, helping her look for a place to live. The two became familiar enough in that short time that Yang listed Zhu as one of two people to contact in case of an emergency.

Friends and former teachers of Zhu, 25, spent yesterday in shock as investigators continued searching his Blacksburg townhouse, laptop computer, cellphone and other personal items to try to piece together why the promising PhD economics student allegedly cut off the head of the 22-year-old woman he had only recently met.

Chinese-language Web pages of Zhu's began to surface yesterday, indicating that he had money problems. But university officials cautioned that one site in particular, which displays Zhu's mug shot and talks about him wanting to kill himself or someone else because of losses in the stock market, appears to be a "total fake."

Still, Will Segar, Zhu's landlord at Blacksburg's Sturbridge Square Apartments, said Zhu acted "strange" and was often "hostile and belligerent." He said Zhu was so concerned about money that he refused to turn the heat on in the three-bedroom townhouse he shared with two roommates. Instead, Segar said, throughout the fall, Zhu gathered sticks and dumped them in the middle of the living room to burn in the fireplace. The apartment had no furniture at the time, Segar said.

"He told my maintenance guy that it cost too much to heat the place, that he'd lost a lot of money in the stock market," Segar said yesterday.

When pipes began to freeze and a neighbor complained about balky plumbing, Segar installed a thermostat set permanently to 65 degrees, he said. Zhu turned it off at the breaker, he said. Segar said Zhu later accused Sturbridge staff of stealing his shoes. Segar said he last saw Zhu about a week ago when he brought Yang to the rental office so she could rent an apartment. But when Segar asked for Yang's passport, visa and Virginia Tech ID, Zhu said something to her in Chinese, and she balked.

"It looked like he was definitely in charge," Segar said. "She was looking to him for advice."

Zhu's roommates did not respond to several phone and e-mail messages. Segar said they "disappeared" after Wednesday's attack.

How a friend and protector could become an alleged executioner remains a mystery as authorities continued to search for a motive in the vicious attack. Virginia Tech and state police referred all calls to the university.

Authorities gave this account: Virginia Tech police, responding to two frantic 911 calls about 7 p.m. Wednesday, found Zhu standing in the Au Bon Pain cafe on campus, with Yang's severed head in his hands, according to an affidavit. A large, bloody kitchen knife lay nearby, and Zhu's backpack, on the floor, was filled with other sharp weapons. Seven people witnessed the attack, which came without as much as a raised voice as the two drank coffee.

"All of his friends are very, very shocked," said Kim Beisecker, director of Virginia Tech's Cranwell International Center. "They all indicated that they would never have expected this of him and are searching for understanding, for an explanation, as we all are. And we just don't have one."

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