A new college term, a faculty member killed and a student arrested: What we know about the UNC shooting

Just days into the start of a new term, students and faculty members at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found themselves barricaded inside classrooms after a gunamn shot and killed a faculty member. Rachel Sharp reports

Tuesday 29 August 2023 17:12 BST
<p>Law enforcement respond to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus </p>

Law enforcement respond to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus

A college campus in North Carolina woke up on Tuesday gripped by fear, grief and many unanswered questions.

Just days into the start of a new term, students and faculty members at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found themselves hunkering down inside classrooms and leaping from first floor windows as an active shooting situation unfolded on site.

Inside the science building, a faculty member was found shot dead.

Following a brief moment where the wrong person was arrested – an unsuspecting individual who missed the shelter-in-place alerts – campus police confirmed that the gunman had been taken into custody around 10 minutes from the scene.

The suspect, identified as graduate student Tailei Qi, has now been charged with the first-degree murder of Dr Zijie Yan.

Harrowingly, the horror and heartbreak is a somewhat familiar sight for the UNC community coming four years after a mass shooting at the Charlotte campus left two dead and four injured.

Officials are yet to release the identity of the victim in this latest attack or what may be the motive behind the shooting, with much of the details of what happened and why still unclear.

Here’s what we do know so far about the shooting:

The shooting

The shooting unfolded at around 1pm local time on Monday when UNC Police responded to a 911 call reporting gunfire at the science lab in the heart of the campus.

Law enforcement arrived on the scene around two minutes after the call came in and plunged the campus into lockdown, warning that “an armed and dangerous person” was at large.

Law enforcement and first responders gather on South Street near the Bell Tower on the campus

Officials later confirmed that a faculty member had been shot dead inside a campus building.

Chilling footage shows terrified students and staff members barricaded inside classrooms and offices for fear that an active shooter was at large.

Soon after, the UNC Police released an image of Mr Qi – naming him only as a person of interest in the case and warning the public that “if you see this person, keep your distance, put your safety first and call 911”.

Around three hours on from the shooting, police confirmed that the suspect had been arrested near a residential area 10 minutes away from the campus.

The gun is yet to be recovered, police said.

The lockdown was eventually lifted at around 4.15pm.

The suspect

The suspect was identified on Tuesday as Tailei Qi, a graduate student who joined the Yan Lab of the college in 2022.

Based on his online bio at the UNC, he studied under Dr Zijie Yan – the leader of the physical chemistry group the Yan Research Group and head of the Department of Applied Physical Sciences.

Before joining UNC, Mr Qi previously studied material science at Louisiana State University and physics at Wuhan University.

A Twitter account believed to belong to Mr Qi reveals that he had railed against his work and his head of lab as well as what he described as “bullies” in the US before allegedly carrying out the shooting.

In a post on 1 August 2022, he wrote: “Bully in america seems to be a problem. It often comes with people not stopping them at the first time.

Tailei Qi booking photo

“Explanation is not a solution but makes them feel others will plead them every time they raise a problem, making them voyeur to find an excuse day and night.”

Two weeks later on 18 August 2022, he tweeted about his “PI” – referring to his unnamed head of lab – handling “these girls and tattletales”.

“Just have a talk with my PI and get his promise. He should have more experience to handle with these girls and tattletales,” he wrote.

“Then, we can just get ourselves out of these stupid topic. Let’s just focus our attention on nature.I won’t change anything if not necessary.”

Two months later in October, he referred to his PI again and an unidentified “group of people”.

“Both the group of people to say I am lazy and that to prove me working hard instead of telling me that are trying to consume my privacy. I judge their motivation is only to tell my PI then control me by taletelling,” he tweeted.

“But it’s weird when I talked about it with my PI, he said no people spoke to him about that. so it’s nothing but some voyeurism for these people?”

In other posts, Mr Qi addressed a mystery woman who he vowed to “just let her go” and his exhaustion with his workload.

“I used to walk 80+ hours per week and I feel relaxing and energetic. Now I only work 60+ hours per week and I feel tired,” he wrote in one.

In a post in July 2022 – before he is believed to have started at UNC that fall – he posted a cryptic message calling his treatment by an unnamed boss “disgusting”.

Tailei Qi posted online about grievances with bullies, his PI and girls

“Just feel my privacy was insulted. When I work, I will think I was showing the boss I am working instead of interests, devaluing the meaning of my work,” he wrote.

“That’s so disgusting. Self-respect block me from working. Then it takes pains to convince myself what I do is just because I like.”

In another post that same month, he wrote that “only work with no play makes Jim a dull boy”.

The Twitter account has the same name and the same image as both Mr Qi’s bio and the person of interest sent out by police during the brief manhunt.

It describes him as “Graduate student @UNC, engaged in light-matter interaction and related materials”.

In one post in early August – just weeks before the shooting – he issued an appeal to meet people at the college.

“I would like to make some new friends. I am a second-year PhD student, interested in nanoparticle synthesis, optical trapping, self-assembly, spectra analysis, and ML,” he said. “a bit stupid in daily trifles, very enthusiastic talking about research. Reach me if inerest.”

The victim

The victim was identified on Tuesday as Dr Zijie Yan as officials said that they needed to first notify next of kin.

Yan is believed to be the very same lead faculty member that the suspect railed against online, as Mr Qi’s head of lab.

Yan led the Yan Research Group, which Qi joined last year, after joining the Chapel Hill faculty in 2019, according to the group’s UNC webpage.

Dr Zijie Yan was identified as the victim of the shooting

Prior to this he earned his PhD in materials engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York before working as an assistant professor at Clarkson University.

While the victim and suspect’s connection is now clear, the motive remains under investigation.

“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?” UNC Police Chief Brian James said on 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.”

Law enforcement and first responders respond to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin M Guskiewicz said in a statement that a hotline and other mental health resources were on offer for staff and students affected by the shooting.

“The students are certainly traumatised,” he said.

“But I want to commend those who were inside the building ensuring everyone’s safety.”

Classes have been canceled through Tuesday following the deadly shooting.

“Due to today’s incident on campus, UNC-Chapel Hill will operate at a Condition 2 on Tuesday, Aug. 29. This means that classes are canceled, and non-mandatory operations are suspended,” the UNC said in an update.

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