University of North Carolina graduate student charged in killing of faculty advisor denied bond

Law enforcement and first responders respond to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus in Chapel Hill, N.C., Monday, Aug. 28, 2023. (AP Photo)

Authorities charged a University of North Carolina graduate student Tuesday with first-degree murder in the fatal shooting of his faculty advisor, in an attack that caused a campus lockdown while police searched for the gunman.

During a brief hearing, Orange County Superior Court Judge Sherri Murrell ordered 34-year-old Tailei Qi to remain jailed without bond as an interpreter explained to Qi in Mandarin what was happening in the courtroom. She scheduled his next court date for Sept. 18.

Dana Graves, a public defender who represented Qi during the hearing, left the courtroom without talking to reporters.

Qi is charged with first-degree murder and having a 9mm handgun on educational property in the the Monday killing of Zijie Yan inside of a science building on UNC’s flagship campus in Chapel Hill. The attack led to a roughly three-hour lockdown of the campus, a week after students returned for the start of the fall semester.

Authorities haven’t publicly speculated as to a motive for the attack.

Yan was an associate professor in the Department of Applied Physical Sciences who had worked for the university since 2019, UNC said in a statement Tuesday, noting that it has been in contact with Yan’s family and is providing them with resources and support.

Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said in a message to the UNC community that his team had met with Yan’s colleagues and family to express condolences on behalf of the campus.

“He was a beloved colleague, mentor and friend to many on our campus,” Guskiewicz said.

On Wednesday, the school’s iconic Bell Tower will ring in honor of Yan’s memory and students are encouraged to take a moment of silence, he wrote.

In a page that has been taken down since the attack, Qi was listed on the school’s website as a graduate student in Yan’s research group and Yan was listed as his adviser. He previously studied at Wuhan University in China before moving to the U.S. and earning a masters in mechanical engineering at Louisiana State University in 2021.

Qi, who lives in Chapel Hill, was arrested during a roughly three-hour lockdown that followed the shooting, authorities said at a Monday news conference.

“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. “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.”

Campus police received a 911 call reporting shots fired at Caudill Labs just after 1 p.m. Monday, James said. An emergency alert was issued and sirens sounded two minutes later, starting a lockdown that led frightened students and faculty to barricade themselves inside dorm rooms, bathrooms, classrooms and other school facilities.

Officers arriving at the lab building found a faculty member who had been fatally shot, James said. Based on witness information, police took the suspect into custody just after 2:30 p.m., according to the chief.

Jones declined to elaborate on the arrest, but TV station WRAL reported that it took place in a residential neighborhood near campus.

The lockdown was lifted around 4:15 p.m.

“This loss is devastating, and the shooting damages the trust and safety that we so often take for granted in our campus community,” Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said.

Yan led the Yan Research Group, which Qi joined last year, according to the group’s UNC webpage. He earned his PhD in materials engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York and previously worked as an assistant professor at Clarkson University.

Qi is a graduate student in the department of applied physical sciences who studies nanopartical synthesis and light-matter interaction. He moved to the U.S. from China after earning a bachelor’s degree in physics at Wuhan University, according to the UNC webpage for the Yan Research Group.

The shooting sparked fear at the state’s flagship public university, just a week after students returned for the start of the fall semester.

Clayton Ulm, 23, a graduate student, said he was in a class of about 50 to 70 people when they were told to go into lockdown. The alarm system had gone off, but screens in the classroom had also glared with the lockdown order.

“Then there was quite a bit of panic as students were trying to figure out what to do,” Ulm said in a LinkedIn message while still in the classroom, heading into his third hour of lockdown. “Then we all started hiding beneath our chairs and under desks. Some students went and locked the doors.”

Students started listening to police scanners to try to get information about where the shooter was, Ulm said. The panic eventually subsided. And people were allowed to use the nearby restrooms. Still, he called it “surreal seeing the mass panic.”

About two hours after the first alert went out, officers were still arriving in droves, with about 50 police vehicles at the scene and helicopters circling over the school.

It took about an hour and a half to lift the lockdown after the arrest because authorities were making sure they had the right suspect in custody, James said.

Police also had received calls around campus about other potential victims and gunshots that needed to be checked out, he said.

“We had to ensure that the entire campus was safe,” James said.

The university, with about 20,000 undergraduate students and 12,000 graduate students, canceled Tuesday classes.

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