CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - A University of North Carolina graduate student charged with killing his faculty adviser walked into a classroom building, shot the victim and then left, authorities said Tuesday, shedding light on an attack that led to a campuswide lockdown as police searched for the gunman.
Tailei Qi, 34, was charged Tuesday with first-degree murder and having a gun on educational property in Monday’s killing of Zijie Yan inside of a science building at the state’s flagship public university.
Chapel Hill city police arrested Qi in a residential neighborhood near the campus within two hours of the attack and didn't need to use force to take him into custody, UNC Police Chief Brian Jones said at a news conference. He said investigators were still trying to determine a motive and were still searching for the gun used to kill Yan.
People walk on the campus of the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill on June 29, 2023 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Eros Hoagland/Getty Images)
UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said his team has met with Yan’s colleagues and family to express condolences and offer support.
"He was a beloved colleague, mentor and a friend of so many on our campus and a father to two young children," Guskiewicz said at the news conference.
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 said. The school also canceled classes until Thursday.
Earlier Tuesday, Qi made an initial appearance in Orange County Superior Court. During the brief hearing, Judge Sherri Murrell ordered Qi to remain jailed without bond as an interpreter explained to Qi in Mandarin what was happening. She scheduled his next court date for Sept. 18.
When the hearing ended, Qi bowed to his interpreter, his attorney and the guards before they took him away in handcuffs. Dana Graves, a public defender who represented Qi at the hearing, left the courtroom without talking to reporters.
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. He 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. In a page that has been taken down since the attack, he was listed on the school’s website as a graduate student in Yan’s research group and Yan was listed as his adviser. Qi 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.
The attack led to a roughly three-hour lockdown on the UNC campus and struck fear into students and faculty who had returned last week for the start of the fall semester.
Noel Harris, a senior journalism student, said she spent several confusing and scary hours locked down in a media management and policy class reading news coverage, listening to police scanners and waiting for updates from the university about whether the campus was still in danger.
When a police officer came by to check on her classroom, those inside asked him to slide his badge under the door first, out of caution, Harris said. The officer told the classroom that the campus was being cleared and they were safe but still recommended that they hold tight until an all-clear was issued. Soon after, Harris started seeing people carefully climbing out of the windows of an adjacent building, a scene she captured on now widely-shared video.
"That’s when I then saw the students jumping from the building. So it was just like, OK, so is it really safe? What’s going on?" she said.
She said Tuesday that she was still trying to get clarity about what led the students to exit through the windows of Phillips Hall, which houses mathematics and other classes and was not the scene of the shooting.
"When this was happening ... I felt myself just being scared and shocked, but then not shocked at the same time because it’s like, this happens every day," Harris said.
The university has about 20,000 undergraduate students and 12,000 graduate students.
Robertson reported from Raleigh, North Carolina, and Rankin reported from Richmond, Virginia. Associated Press writers Jonathan Drew in Hillsborough, North Carolina, Sarah Brumfield in Silver Spring, Maryland, and Ben Finley in Norfolk, Virginia, contributed to this report.