HILLSBOROUGH, N.C. >> Authorities charged a University of North Carolina graduate student today with first-degree murder in the fatal shooting of his faculty advisor, in an attack that caused a campuswide 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. 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 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 discussed 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 today.
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.
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.
The shooting and lockdown led students and faculty to seek shelter in dormitories, classrooms and other school facilities.
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 today 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, with about 20,000 undergraduate students and 12,000 graduate students, canceled today’s classes.
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.