Eighteen-year-old Zheng Xianjuan went to the Chinese takeout restaurant in Prince George's County where her father works to wait for him to finish his shift. At 10:30 p.m., as she stood on the sidewalk sipping seafood soup out of a cup, two men came up and one fatally shot her in the head.
Police said the shooting, which happened Monday night four blocks from the District line, might have been a botched robbery.
Her father, Zheng Xinbin, 50, a cook at Sunflowers Carry Out in Chillum, ran outside to find his daughter lying on the ground next to a large blue mailbox.
"All of a sudden, I heard pang, pang -- two gunshots -- and I went outside," he said in a telephone interview, speaking in Mandarin. Then he sobbed: "Ayah, my daughter had fallen there. . . . I picked her up in my arms.
"I only have this one daughter. She was so beautiful. She was such a good student."
The father collapsed to the ground in tears next to her, witnesses said.
His daughter was a senior at Northwestern High School, earning mostly A's on her report cards, he said. She planned to attend college next year.
Detectives are investigating whether the gunmen ordered the teenager back into the restaurant and whether she refused to go, said a police source who did not want to be identified because the case remains open.
"At this time, it appears she was just outside eating a bowl of soup when two suspects approached her," said Sgt. Tammy Sparkman, a police spokeswoman. "One pulled out a handgun and shot her multiple times."
At the Chillum strip mall in the 5600 block of Sargent Road yesterday, Sunflowers Carry Out was closed and dark. Open bottles of water and juice were still on two dine-in tables, as if the place had been closed in a rush Monday night. The restaurant has video games and a thick piece of glass covering the length of the counter, separating customers from cashiers.
According to Zheng, his daughter came to the restaurant Monday evening with her brother, Zheng Zhong, 25, and the two were to wait for their father. When she went to buy a cup of soup, her brother went to a 7-Eleven store across the street. She stood outside the restaurant, sipping the broth when the gunmen approached.
The father's account of what happened differed slightly from the initial police account released yesterday, but by the end of the day, they confirmed his information.
Police at first said that Zheng Xianjuan worked at the restaurant with her father, but her family said she did not work there. Her relatives said she was a full-time student at Northwestern High School in Adelphi and worked at a fast-food restaurant in Union Station on weekends to help the family pay its bills.
Her father said he had no idea why his daughter would have been the target of an attack.
He said he had worked at the carryout previously, then left to cook elsewhere for three months. He had returned recently after the owner called him, saying she was short-staffed.
Neither he nor his son knows why Zheng Xianjuan was eating outside. Her father thinks she might have been looking to see whether her brother was still at the convenience store.
Both think the assailant might have mistaken her for the restaurant owner, a Chinese woman who often works behind the counter.
At their Chillum home, Zheng Xianjuan was the person whose English was good enough to handle the family transactions, her father said. On her parents' behalf, she paid the utility bills, handled the banking, was in charge of the credit card accounts. She came to the United States when she was 16, he said, and enrolled in high school.
The shooting happened near the Prince George's-District line, in a neighborhood with increasing violent crime and residents growing more fearful and frustrated. They complain of heightened drug and gang activity and say they have seen Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, graffiti popping up.
"There is a sense of fear in our neighborhood, the MS-13 tags, that really concerns me," said Chillum resident Sondra Jones. "It's frightening. We moved here six or seven years ago, and what attracted us was a diverse community that had a lot of upkeep. There were people who liked to maintain large pieces of property."
In the past year, she has installed motion-detecting lights outside her home and an alarm inside. She also has a dog for protection.
"When I get out of my car, I make sure I'm aware of my surroundings," she said. "I sometimes have an eerie feeling of getting out of my car and someone sneaking up on me."