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UNC-Chapel Hill graduate student charged with murder of professor

Law enforcement officers and first responders gather near the bell tower on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on Monday. (Kaitlin McKeown/AP)
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A University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill graduate student was charged Tuesday with first-degree murder in the fatal shooting of a faculty member, campus police said, an incident that caused a three-hour lockdown and sent panicked students to barricade themselves on campus inside dorm rooms and bathrooms.

The suspect, Tailei Qi, 34, is a second-year graduate student in the university’s department of applied physical sciences. In addition to the murder count, he has been charged with possession of a weapon on educational property and is being held at the Orange County Jail without bail, the UNC police department said.

Police identified the victim as Zijie Yan, an associate professor in the department of applied physical sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences who has worked for the university since 2019. Yan is a father of two children.

At a news conference Tuesday afternoon, university police said they had not determined a motive for the shooting and had not recovered a weapon.

The suspect and the professor “knew each other,” and Qi “went directly to the victim,” UNC Police Chief Brian James said at the news conference. But he did not offer further details about their relationship, noting that authorities are still going through evidence.

Qi’s university online profile, which has since been deleted, cited Yan as his adviser. The UNC police and university authorities did not immediately respond to a Washington Post request to confirm this information.

Police also said investigators were reviewing material, including social media accounts, to learn more about what might have led to the shooting.

“This will be something that we will continue to determine throughout the course of the investigation,” James said.

Kevin M. Guskiewicz, the UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor, at a news conference described Yan as “a beloved colleague, mentor and a friend to so many on our campus.” To honor Yan, the chancellor said, the campus will ring the bell tower at 1:02 p.m. on Wednesday and hold a moment of silence. A candlelight vigil will be held Wednesday evening.

The chancellor said he and his leadership team had met with members of Yan’s family, along with some of his colleagues in the departments of applied physical sciences and chemistry. “In this time of profound sadness,” Guskiewicz said, “I am grateful for the strength of our Tar Heel community, and I urge us to continue to build and strengthen our community together.”

Classes will be canceled through Wednesday.

When asked if the suspect is cooperating, the police chief said that authorities “can’t speak to what the suspect said at this point. We are still unraveling all the information we have.”

UNC shooting: Gunman kills faculty member, authorities say

The UNC police had shared a photo of Qi on Monday soon after alerts went off about an active shooter situation on campus and described him as an “armed and dangerous” person of interest.

According to his LinkedIn profile, Qi holds a degree in physics from Wuhan University in China and a master’s degree in material science and engineering from Louisiana State University, where he graduated in December 2021.

“To actually have the suspect in custody gives us an opportunity to figure out the why and even the how, and also helps us to uncover a motive and really just why this happened today. Why today, why at all?” James said Monday. “And we want to learn from this incident, and we will certainly work to do our best to ensure that this never happens again on the UNC campus.”

The first call to 911 about a shooting at Caudill Laboratories, a centrally located facility that focuses on chemistry, came at 1:02 p.m. Monday, James said. An emergency alert was issued, starting a lockdown that led frightened students and faculty to barricade themselves inside campus. Scores of police officers from other agencies descended upon the campus, some in armored vehicles, while a helicopter buzzed overhead.

Officers arrived at the campus “within minutes” and entered the building, where they found that Yan had been shot. Officials did not locate the suspect at that time, James said Tuesday, adding that he must have exited “very quickly right after the incident.”

Qi was taken into custody just after 2:30 p.m. Monday at his residence “without incident” and with no force used, according to the police chief.

The police said Qi probably drove to campus early Monday but left by foot. His vehicle is being processed by the FBI.

Local government officials condemned the violence and highlighted the psychological trauma it inflicted on the student body.

“We are heartbroken for the UNC students, faculty, and staff whose sense of safety on their beautiful campus was shattered by the day’s events and for those children, teachers, and staff who had to lock down on their first day back to our local schools,” Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger said in a statement.

Jack Stripling contributed to this report.