CRIME, POLICE + COURTS

UNC graduate student charged with murder in fatal shooting of associate professor

Aug 30, 2023, 8:00 AM

Emergency responders gather on South Street near the Bell Tower on the University of North Carolina...

Emergency responders gather on South Street near the Bell Tower on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus on Monday. Photo credit: Kaitlin McKeown/The News & Observer/AP

(CNN) — The suspect in the fatal shooting of a faculty member at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on Monday is a graduate student at the school, UNC police said in a news release Tuesday.

Tailei Qi, the grad student, was charged with first-degree murder and having a gun on education property in court Tuesday. He did not enter a plea and was ordered held without bond.

The victim was identified as Zijie Yan, an associate professor in the department of Applied Physical Sciences who had worked for UNC since 2019.

The two knew each other, UNC Police Chief Brian James said Tuesday.

Qi was a grad student in the same department and Yan was his faculty adviser, according to Qi’s UNC biographical page, which has been deleted but is available on the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. Qi entered the school in 2022 and listed his previous education as Louisiana State University and Wuhan University, the page said.

Qi entered the courtroom Tuesday wearing an orange jail outfit with his hands cuffed in front of him. He used an interpreter and was assigned a public defender for his first appearance. He is a citizen of China and is in the United States on a visa, District Attorney Jeff Nieman said.

Nieman said the gun possession charge was related to a 9 mm handgun. The firearm used in the shooting still has not been recovered, James said.

If convicted, Qi faces a minimum of life in prison without parole for the murder charge and up to two years for the weapons charge. The maximum sentence for first-degree murder in North Carolina is the death penalty, but Nieman has said his office policy is to not seek the death penalty.

UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz expressed his condolences to Yan’s family and said the campus will ring the bell tower in his honor on Wednesday.

“He was a beloved colleague, mentor and a friend to so many on our campus, and a father to two young children,” he said.

Shooting took place just after 1 p.m.

The early afternoon shooting at the school’s Caudill Laboratories, a chemistry studies building, sent the university into lockdown for hours.

The suspect was located on foot about a mile away and detained about 90 minutes afterward, James said. His car was found on campus, he said.

“We want to ensure that we gather every piece of evidence to determine exactly what happened here today and why it happened,” James said at a news conference Monday evening. “It is too early in this investigation to know a motive for the shooting.”

Classes and campus activities were canceled Monday and Tuesday, and will continue to be closed Wednesday, officials said. This is the second week of fall semester classes at the flagship university of the 17-member UNC system.

“This loss is devastating and the shooting damages the trust and safety that we so often take for granted in our campus community. We will work to rebuild that sense of trust and safety within our community,” Guskiewicz said on Monday.

After 911 calls about the shooting came in shortly after 1 p.m., university police issued an alert advising students to go inside immediately, close windows and doors and to wait until further notice, according to an email. A witness on campus told CNN they were locked down in their building and saw armed officers searching campus.

Video from CNN affiliate WRAL showed a large number of police vehicles at the campus with their emergency lights flashing. At times, people walked out of nearby buildings in a single-file line with their arms in the air.

Police detained one person before the suspect’s arrest but they determined “very quickly” it was not the gunman, James said.

The suspect was taken into custody shortly after 2:30 p.m., Guskiewicz said. The university continued in lockdown for a couple hours after the suspect was detained because authorities were working to confirm they had the right person and trying to find the firearm that was used, James told reporters.

The university has a student body of about 32,000, along with more than 4,000 faculty and 9,000 staff members.

The FBI is assisting in evidence gathering, officials said.

Forty-nine school shootings have happened in the US this year, including the UNC shooting – 34 have been reported on K-12 campuses and 15 on university and college campuses – according to a CNN tally.

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UNC graduate student charged with murder in fatal shooting of associate professor