Published January 22, 2009
BLACKSBURG, Virginia – Alone and in a new country, graduate student Xin Yang reached out to other Chinese students at Virginia Tech when she arrived two weeks ago, trying to establish her life on campus.
She went to social events with international students, got in touch with the campus center that works to help them adjust and appeared to be making friends as she settled into her accounting program, those who had met her said.
But one of the friendships may have led to her death: Police say she was decapitated with a kitchen knife while having coffee with a Chinese doctoral student in a campus cafe Wednesday night.
The killing stunned a campus that still has vivid memories of the mass slayings in April 2007, when a student gunman shot 32 people and then took his own life. The stabbing was the first slaying on campus since then.
"An act of violence like this brings back memories of April 16," university President Charles Steger said. "I have no doubt that many of us feel especially distraught."
It appeared Yang had met her accused attacker, 25-year-old Haiyang Zhu of Ningbo, China, only recently, said Kim Beisecker, the director of Cranwell International Center, which works with international students. Zhu, a doctoral student in agricultural and applied economics, had been assisting her in adjusting to life at Tech, something the 500 Chinese students often do for new members in their community, she said. They both attended functions for international students, she said.
"She was a very sweet young woman," she said. "He was known as a polite young man."
Though they apparently didn't know each other well, school records listed Zhu as one of her emergency contacts. Beisecker said that may have been because Yang knew few people on campus.
"As best we know, she had made a fair number of friends, but only in the last week," Beisecker said.
What led to the attack is also a mystery: About seven other people who were in the coffee shop told police that the two hadn't been arguing before the attack. Beisecker said there hadn't been previous signs of trouble between them.
Police received two 911 calls shortly after 7 p.m. Wednesday, and were on the scene in a little more than a minute to take Zhu into custody, Virginia Tech Police Chief Wendell Flinchum said.
Zhu was charged with first-degree murder and was being held without bond at the Montgomery County Jail. His attorney, Stephanie Cox, did not return a call seeking comment Thursday.
Classes were held as usual Thursday and the sprawling 2,600-acre campus appeared normal, with students skateboarding, talking on cell phones and chatting with friends.
Tasha Lockhart, a sophomore from Ocean City, Md., went to her biology class in the Graduate Life Center's auditorium Thursday afternoon. She said she felt "a little bit" wary. Her instructor told students to be aware of exits that were away from the main entrance in case of trouble, she said.
After the arrest, a campus alert system put in place after the mass shootings by Seung-Hui Cho in 2007 sent out messages to 30,000 subscribers by e-mail, text messages and telephone voice mails Wednesday night, University spokesman Larry Hinckler said.
Because a suspect was in custody, the messages were sent out as notifications rather than as emergency alerts, he said. He said 60,000 messages were sent in about a half hour.
The school offered counseling to students, faculty and staff, and officials contacted students who were injured in the mass shootings as well as the families of victims.
"It was a very retraumatizing kind of experience," said Debbie Day, director of the Office of Recovery and Support.