Death at Harvard
IT WAS SUNDAY MORNING OF MEMORIAL Day weekend, and the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Mass., seemed especially tranquil. Not only was the weather balmy, but final exams had finished the day before, allowing students the luxury of sleeping in. Karel Liem, a biology professor who serves as master of Dunster House, a picturesque dorm by the Charles River, was preparing to leave town when he received an urgent phone call. A tutor at Dunster told him something terrible had just happened—one of the juniors who lived in the building had killed her roommate and then hanged herself in a shower stall. “I was in total shock,” says Liem. “But that was just the beginning.”
Liem quickly discovered that the two women involved were among the quietest and most studious underclassmen living at Dunster. The murder victim, Trang Ho, 20, was a premed student from Medford, Mass. Born in Vietnam, Ho came to the United States 10 years ago, one of hundreds of thousands of desperate boat people who fled their native land by sea. Her killer was Sinedu Tadesse, also 20 and a premed student, who came from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
The murder-suicide stunned the campus, which had already endured more than its share of pain and controversy this past school year. Two students committed suicide, two former students pleaded guilty to stealing a total of nearly $127,000 from a benefit for young cancer patients, and high school student Gina Grant was accepted and then denied admission after it was discovered that she had killed her mother 4½ years ago (PEOPLE, April 24). Last winter, Harvard President Neil Rudenstine took a much-publicized, three-month sabbatical to recover from exhaustion.
As for Tadesse and Ho, the pair had roomed together for a year. Though they had their squabbles, the tensions had never seemed particularly serious. The problems, says Middlesex County prosecutor Martin Murphy, appear to have been “no different than thousands of disagreements that happen between roommates at every college.”
Certainly, Tadesse gave Ho no warning of the impending attack. On Saturday night, Ho had been relaxing with her best friend, Thao Nguyen, 29, a high school teacher in nearby Lowell, who was spending the night. They had dinner, then tried to buy tickets for the movie While You Were Sleeping; after learning that the show was sold out, they instead rented the 1991 movie The Man in the Moon. When they went to sleep around 3 a.m.—sharing the bed in Ho’s room—nothing seemed amiss.
At 8 a.m., Nguyen heard Tadesse’s alarm go off. She and Ho started to doze back off when Tadesse suddenly burst into the room. All Nguyen could hear was the sound of Tadesse screaming. “I heard Trang try to say something,” says Nguyen, “but she couldn’t get out any sound.” Tadesse then turned the knife on Nguyen, who despite being seriously wounded in the left arm managed to fend off the blows. She fled from the room and staggered into the courtyard outside, crying, “Someone’s killed my friend!” Within minutes both campus and Cambridge police were on the scene. They found Ho dead in Tadesse’s room, where she had apparently collapsed after trying to escape; an autopsy later showed that she had been stabbed 45 times. Tadesse was discovered hanging by a rope from the shower rod in their bathroom.
To those who knew Ho, it seemed incomprehensible that she could become the object of anyone’s fury. She had made the perilous sea voyage from Vietnam to Indonesia with her father, Phuoc, and older sister Thao, now 21, while her mother, Quy Huynh, remained behind with her younger sister, Tram, now 18. (By one account her father had Trang’s head shaved during the journey so that she would look like a boy, lest she be attacked by pirates who preyed on the boat people.) When they got to the U.S., her father took them to Boston because of the educational opportunities. His daughter graduated first in her class at Boston Technical High School, then excelled at Harvard, getting mostly A’s and B’s as a biology major. She even found time to work as a tutor for immigrant youngsters in Dorchester. Two years ago she was profiled in Boston magazine as one of “25 Who Can Save Boston.”
Nguyen says her friend was especially adept at walking the fine line between cultures that most immigrants face. On the one hand, Ho relished many things American. “She loved the library and the Charles River,” says Nguyen. “She loved McDonald’s and ice cream.” Yet at the same time she was devoted to her family. Three years ago her mother and sister arrived from Vietnam. Her parents soon separated, and her father moved to California, leaving Trang and Thao to take care of the family. Trang held down two jobs at Harvard, including one at the library, where Tadesse also worked.
It is unclear exactly how Ho and Tadesse met and came to room together. And questions remain about what set them at odds. According to some acquaintances, the two had differences over such things as tidiness and noise. Ho was extremely neat, while Tadesse was somewhat less fastidious. Recently, Ho had decided to room with someone else for her senior year, which some friends say angered Tadesse. “Trang had told me about fighting over a new roommate,” says Nguyen. “Sinedu also wanted to live with the same girl, but the girl chose Trang instead.” Given the chill in their relationship, Ho started spending more time in the library.
Tadesse evidently felt abandoned by her roommate and also appeared increasingly distraught. “I saw her last week, and she seemed quite frustrated and sort of had a glazed look on her face,” one student told a reporter. In recent weeks, Tadesse apparently wrote Ho a plaintive letter, pleading with her to change her mind about getting a new roommate. “I thought we were going to do stuff together,” she wrote. “You’ll always have a family to go to, and I am going to have no one.”
There was also reason to believe that Tadesse’s attack had been premeditated. The evening of the killing, the Harvard Crimson disclosed that five days before it had received an anonymous envelope containing a photograph of Tadesse. Included was a computer-printed note reading, “Keep this picture. There will soon be a very juicy story involving the person in this picture.” Though a fingerprint analysis of the items was still incomplete, police are working on the assumption that Tadesse herself had sent the envelope.
If Ho seemed unlikely to provoke anyone to violence, Tadesse seemed an equally unlikely assailant. “She had never shown the slightest aggressive tendencies,” says her father, Tadesse Zeleke, 64, standing under a tent in the backyard of his modest home in Addis Ababa, his wife, Atsede, wailing in grief nearby. “This has come like a bolt from the blue.” A retired official in the country’s Ministry of Education, Tadesse calls his daughter the “glittering jewel of the family.” Her academic record was indeed stellar. She had graduated second in her class from the prestigious International Community School in Addis Ababa, where she had won a full scholarship. And though somewhat reserved, she was popular with her classmates and teachers. “She was elegant and poised,” says Maura McMillin, who taught Tadesse in an honors English class at the ICS.
At Harvard, where she had also won a scholarship, Tadesse did fairly well academically. Her dream was to become a doctor and return to Ethiopia. “Her intent was to come back and help her people,” says McMillin. Tadesse made a few friends at Harvard and joined in several activities, including a student dance troupe, but she apparently never felt entirely comfortable. A month ago, McMillin suggested that another Ethiopian student of hers who had been accepted at Harvard call Tadesse to ask about the school. “She told him it’s not only academically challenging but there is a lot of social pressure as well,” says McMillin. “Still, he thought she sounded fine.”
In the aftermath of the killing, there was speculation that Tadesse had simply snapped from the stress she found herself under at Harvard. But some of Tadesse’s teachers at the International Community School in Ethiopia were doubtful. “I thought she handled stress very well,” says Astrid Shiferaw, who taught Tadesse chemistry for four years at ICS. “And in our school we have plenty.” However, Shiferaw recalls that Sinedu did become withdrawn when her closest friend left school to return to her home in Kenya.
At least back in Addis Ababa, Tadesse could count on her family for support. At Harvard she was largely on her own. Though she had a classmate who had also graduated from the ICS, as well as an aunt in the area, she had apparently been home to Ethiopia only once in three years. (One of five children, Tadesse did have an older brother, Seifu, who is a student at Dartmouth.) For cultural reasons she probably never would have consulted the university adviser and the student health services. “I’m sure she didn’t feel comfortable going to a school counselor,” says McMillin.
The sense of mystery about the episode is unlikely to lift anytime soon. “We know what happened, but we’re still trying to sort out why,” says prosecutor Murphy. “At this point it is doubtful that anyone will ever be able to give a good reason.”
ANNE LONGLEY, SUE AVERY BROWN, MARIA EFTIMIADES and STEPHEN SAWICKI in Boston, TERRY SMITH in London and TSEGAYE TADESSE in Addis Ababa