UPDATE: UNC Chapel Hill Shooting Suspect Found Unfit to Stand Trial

The victim was Zijie Yan, an associate professor of applied physical sciences and the suspect’s academic adviser.

UPDATE: UNC Chapel Hill Shooting Suspect Found Unfit to Stand Trial

Photo: Chad Robertson, Adobe Stock

UPDATE NOVEMBER 28, 2023: The former University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC Chapel Hill) graduate student who had been charged with fatally shooting faculty member Zijie Yan this summer has been found to likely suffer from untreated schizophrenia by two mental evaluations. He has been deemed unfit to stand trial for the murder of Yan.

Tailei Qi, 34, will be committed to a mental health facility, reports ABC News. Doctors will notify the court if Qi’s condition improves and he is able to stand trial.

ORIGINAL AUGUST 29, 2023 ARTICLE:

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — A University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC Chapel Hill) faculty member was shot and killed Monday inside a laboratory, forcing the campus into lockdown as authorities searched for the suspected shooter.

UNC students were first alerted to an armed and dangerous person on or near campus shortly after 1 p.m. and were told to go inside immediately and close and lock windows and doors, NBC News reports. Sirens sounded two minutes later, indicating the campus was in lockdown. At 2:24 p.m., the university issued an alert to remain sheltered in place as the suspect was still at large.

University officials issued a photo of the suspect and warned, “If you see this person, keep your distance, put your safety first, and call 911.” The suspect, later identified as 34-year-old Tailei Qi, was taken into custody in a nearby residential neighborhood around 2:31 p.m., about 90 minutes after the first report of shots fired.

The lockdown was lifted around 4:15 p.m. and no other injuries were reported. UNC Police Chief Brian James said the lockdown wasn’t lifted until an hour and a half after the suspect was apprehended as investigators worked to verify his identity and search for the weapon, which hasn’t been recovered, according to WBAL. A student told NBC that he saw authorities handcuff a person who matched the description but he was eventually released.

The victim has been identified as Zijie Yan, an associate professor in the school’s applied physical sciences department. He was also the academic adviser to the suspect, reports WRAL. Qi, a second-year doctoral student, worked closely with Yan as part of a research group. The two co-authored several research papers, including one published just last month.

Yan worked as an assistant professor at New York’s Clarkson University and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Chicago before joining the UNC faculty in 2019. He earned his Ph.D. in materials engineering from New York’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Qi, who has a master’s degree from Louisiana State University and a degree from Wuhan University in China, has been charged with first-degree murder. Aiden Scott, a UNC graduate student and former classmate of Qi, said he was very quiet and that he “never would have guessed that he would be the kind of person who could possibly be capable of this kind of thing.” Scott also said Qi struggled to communicate and speak clear English.

“In hindsight, I would guess he probably didn’t have a very good network here. I get the impression he went to another university out of the country. So he was very new. Very out of his element. Very quiet,” he said. “So I can see a situation where he didn’t have that many people close to him.”

Social media posts by Qi mentioned bullying and loneliness and a desire to make new friends. He also expressed frustration with his work, his graduate student colleagues, and his principal investigator, who is typically a faculty member assigned by the university to work with students on research projects, according to NC News.

James said the investigation will take weeks as local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies work to determine a motive and search for evidence.

UNC canceled classes for the rest of the day Monday and all of Tuesday. Counseling and psychological services have been made available for students and staff. Caudill Labs, the site of the shooting, remains closed.

Students Jumped from Windows, Hid in Bathroom Stalls

Students recalled fear and panic as the campus went into lockdown. One cell phone video from campus shows students jumping from the second floor of a building into bushes below.

Clayton Ulm, a 23-year-old graduate student, said he was in a class of around 50 to 70 people when the lockdown alarm system sounded and screens in the classroom showed the lockdown order.

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

Another student told NBC she was using the bathroom before class when people started running into the bathroom saying there was an active shooter. The students hid in the stalls and squatted on the toilets.

“Everyone was too scared to go out and check so I went out of the stall into the main area [of the building] and there were people there saying, ‘It’s okay, just stay where you are. Police are coming,” the student recalled. “Then finally, the police started surrounding the building, getting everything together, and all the students are safe now over there. It was very terrifying.”

Monday was the start of the second week of classes at UNC, the nation’s first public university. The campus has around 20,000 undergraduate students and 12,000 graduate students, as well at 4,000 faculty and 9,000 staff members.

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About the Author

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Amy is Campus Safety’s Executive Editor. Prior to joining the editorial team in 2017, she worked in both events and digital marketing.

Amy has many close relatives and friends who are teachers, motivating her to learn and share as much as she can about campus security. She has a minor in education and has worked with children in several capacities, further deepening her passion for keeping students safe.

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