BATON ROUGE, La. – Police seeking suspects in this week's slaying of two Louisiana State University students faced a new dilemma over the weekend — final exams were over, and students who might have information useful to investigators were leaving for the holiday break.
"We're up against a rapidly ticking clock in terms of identifying potential witnesses," said Baton Rouge Police Department Sgt. Don Kelly, a spokesman for the law enforcement task force investigating the Thursday night killings of two Ph.D. students from India.
Police patrols were stepped up near the Edward Gay apartments at the edge of the campus where Chandrasekhar Reddy Komma, 31, a biochemistry student from Kurnool, and Kiran Kumar Allam, 33, a chemistry student from Hyderabad, were shot in the head in a home invasion. Officers on Saturday walked nearby streets, knocking on doors and asking people for any information they may have about the killings, Kelly said.
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The investigation focused on three black men who police said were seen late Thursday hurriedly leaving from the apartment complex where Allam lived and the shootings occurred. Police also searched for information about a possible fourth suspect, who they believed drove a getaway car.
But police had no real description of the men, other than to say they are young and got into small to mid-sized four-door car whose headlights were turned on only after the car had left the parking lot.
"That's the best information we have at this time. It's still very early in the investigation, and other leads may come forward," Kelly said.
Many students had finished their finals and left campus before the killings. But by Saturday, with lingering exams completed, much of the 28,000-student campus began to shut down for the holidays.
Elizabeth Braud, a 20-year-old mass communications major, headed home, saying she was grateful to go. Braud said the university's efforts to notify students about the murders were woefully insufficient. She and many of her friends had signed up for an emergency text-messaging alert system that failed in the hours after the killings. The notice she did receive by e-mail, urging caution, didn't provide enough details, she said.
"I don't really know what 'use caution' means. Does that mean to stay inside? Because I can't stay inside, I have finals," she said. "It would have been nice to be aware of what was going on. I didn't receive a text message. That just makes me feel so unsafe."
An evening news release said LSU had investigated the problem with the provider and had resolved the issue, and was planning a full test on Jan. 18, the first week of spring classes.
"This tragedy revealed technical problems, and those have been rectified. But we will not leave this to chance," it quoted Chancellor Sean O'Keefe as saying. "The test we conduct in January will be full-scale and we will evaluate the results of that test carefully."
LSU spokeswoman Kristine Calongne identified the provider as clearTXT Inc., a Morrisville, N.C. company.
A message on its Web site said only, "clearTXT successfully processed and handled message delivery to members of the LSU community that opted-in in the clearTXT system to receive messages. We are actively working with LSU officials and will provide additional information soon."
ClearTXT chief executive officer Doug Kaufman said he could not comment further until after more discussion with LSU officials.
Indian Embassy officials arrived in Baton Rouge on Saturday to offer assistance, including help with arranging the burials of the two men, Kelly said.
New details were scarce. There was no forced entry, and while some items were missing from the apartment, Kelly said it was too early to consider it an armed robbery.
"We have not established a motive ... All we know was there was a double murder," he said.
The killing was the first on campus in a decade.
In Hyderabad, India, Allam's grief-stricken father said Saturday that his son sounded happy when they spoke earlier this week.
"It's unbelievable that my son is no more," Rajaiah Allam said before boarding a flight to his U.S., where his wife and two daughters were already visiting the student.
"They were so happy that their second wedding anniversary was coinciding with the arrival of their first child," said A. Padma, Allam's aunt in Gajulapally, about 125 miles north of Hyderabad.
Komma recently told his family that he was getting job offers and also had recently married, said his brother K. Srinivas Reddy.
"Heavens have fallen on us. We never thought that such a tragedy is in store for us when everything looked so bright and promising," Reddy said.
Meanwhile, parents and students worried about the failure in the text-messaging alert system put in place after the Virginia Tech killings earlier this year. LSU said the problem with the system was fixed, but Elizabeth Braud said she hadn't received any text message to confirm that. She said she's never received any message from the system, even when she signed up.
Braud's father, Gerard, a crisis communications expert, said too few students were signed up for the service, and the university hadn't done enough to test it or register recipients.
LSU officials sent a campus-wide alert out more than an hour and a half after the first emergency call to university police at 10:37 p.m. Thursday. The university sent out e-mail and voicemail messages and posted a message on the university's Web site. But the text message alert did not reach all 8,000 students who had signed up for the alert service.
Gerard Braud said the first notice to students about the shootings took too long to go out, and he said the text-messaging service should have been tested before an emergency happened.
"On a clear, sunny day you do all the preparations you need for the worst day of your life," he said. In this instance, LSU "waited until a real life emergency, and the system failed."