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Did This Harvard Student Murder a Stranger?

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If fate had been kind to both men, their paths would have never crossed. But somehow in the rainy, early morning hours of April 12, Michael Colono, 18, a restaurant cook, and Alexander Pring-Wilson, 25, a Harvard graduate student, confronted each other on a street in Cambridge, Mass.—and when it was over, two families were left stunned that such a strange encounter could have come to such a terrible end.

What exactly transpired is still unclear. According to Pring-Wilson, who was walking home after a night of drinking, he was called over to a car in which Colono was sitting with some friends. Words were exchanged, and a scuffle broke out. The only certainty is that within a matter of seconds the burly Pring-Wilson, an avid outdoors-man who habitually carried a 3-in. folding knife, had fatally stabbed the smaller Colono. Now Pring-Wilson is facing charges of first-degree murder. “It’s just unbelievable to me,” says Pring-Wilson’s mother, Cynthia, herself a former prosecutor, “the fact that he hurt someone, [let alone] that the poor young man died.”

Perhaps inevitably, the case has stirred class tensions in the Boston area, with many blue-collar residents eager to see the Harvard student get his comeuppance. “People want the book thrown at this guy,” says Howie Carr, a talk radio host in Boston, where the killing has filled the airwaves. “It’s all about class and the fact that he has a name that is parted in the middle.” Certainly the brilliant and charismatic Pring-Wilson, whose friends call him “Sander,” has until now lived a charmed life. Born and raised with his younger twin sisters in Colorado Springs, where his father, Ross Wilson, is a respected attorney (his parents are divorced), he graduated magna cum laude from the academically demanding Colorado College. “Sander is extraordinary,” says Prof. John Riker, who taught him in philosophy. In September 2001 he entered Harvard’s graduate program for Russian and Eastern European Studies.

Fluent or conversant in five languages, Pring-Wilson had recently decided to go to law school, with the intention of perhaps practicing environmental law. The career choice seemed in keeping with what friends say was a lifelong passion for justice and righting perceived wrongs. But friends also wonder if that same defiant spirit didn’t influence Pring-Wilson’s behavior. “I do believe that if he were challenged he would not back down until he felt that somehow the righteous outcome had been observed,” says fellow Harvard graduate student Bryan Wockley, 30. “It may be a tragic flaw [in him].” Still, the Colono family finds it insulting that so much attention has been given to Pring-Wilson’s supposedly sterling character. “It’s a shame that all you hear about are the accomplishments of the [killer],” says Michael Colono’s older brother Marcos, 25. As Marcos is quick to point out, “Michael Colono didn’t have a weapon that night.”

What he had were growing hopes that he had turned his life around. One of five children of Puerto Rican immigrants Gabriel, 55, a factory worker, and Ada, 50, a housewife, Michael had himself become a father at age 15 when his girlfriend Cindy Guzman gave birth to a daughter, Leah Jady, now 3. Over the years Colono had also got into some nasty scrapes with the law, including arrests for intent to deal crack cocaine and disorderly conduct. All the same, Colono’s family insists that he tried to be a good father and has been deeply involved in his daughter’s upbringing. Recently he had started a job as a cook at a restaurant called Tavern on the Charles.

Nevertheless, Colono’s police record could come up at the trial, which probably won’t start until next year. So will the facts that Pring-Wilson, who is expected to post $400,000 in cash for bail, was drunk and, at first, told the emergency dispatcher he had simply witnessed a fight rather than being involved in one. Jeffrey Denner, Pring-Wilson’s attorney, says that at trial he will argue that his client acted in self-defense, lashing out blindly with his knife when he believed he might be killed, and later made no attempt to dispose of the weapon. But self-defense can be a tough case to make. “It is a defense that is often used and not often won,” says Thomas Hoopes, a former prosecutor in Massachusetts.

“What happened was a terrible coincidence, two people at the wrong place and the wrong time,” says Pring-Wilson’s friend Wockley. “It’s something that should have and could have been avoided.”

Bill Hewitt

Tom Duffy in Cambridge