Four teens charged with murder after death of Chinese student at USC campus

Engineering student Ji Xinran, 24, discovered dead by roomate hours after attack with baseball bat and spanner on Thursday

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 July, 2014, 1:22pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 July, 2014, 10:24pm

Four US teens were charged on Tuesday with murder in the fatal beating of a Chinese graduate student with a baseball bat and spanner as he walked to his flat.

Two of the suspects, aged 16 and 17, were juveniles charged as adults in the killing of Ji Xinran, 24, an engineering student at the University of Southern California who was attacked early on Thursday. He was able to make his way to his flat. A roommate discovered him dead hours later.

The defendants – Alberto Ochoa, 17, Alejandra Guerrero, 16, Andrew Garcia, 18, and 19-year-old Jonathan Del Carmen – will be appear in court on August 12 on one count each of murder with a special circumstance of murder in the course of an attempted robbery, prosecutors said.

Garcia, Ochoa and Guerrero will also face a special allegation that they personally used a dangerous weapon – the bat and spanner.

In 2012, two USC students from China were fatally shot during an off-campus robbery also during the early morning.

“For any family this is a horrible tragedy, but it’s magnified by the fact that these Chinese families have sent their children so far away expecting that this was the best possible thing ... and now he’s gone,” Clayton Dube, executive director of the USC US-China Institute, said about Ji.

Dube, who informed Ji’s mother of her only child’s death, said the university and the US and Chinese governments were working to get Ji’s parents to Los Angeles from Hohhot, the capital city of Inner Mongolia.

Ji’s parents, Ji Songbo and Du Jinhui, said in a statement on Tuesday that they are struggling to get visas.

They also said they are “deeply concerned” about students at the university, especially those from China.

“We hope that USC can enhance security and guarantee the safety of USC students,” they said. The statement mentioned the two Chinese students killed in 2012 and urged the school to learn from those deaths and Ji’s.

“We do not want to see another incident like this,” they said. “No parents should have to bear this pain.”

Ji had excelled at one of China’s best universities and won a scholarship for excellence in research and innovation, according to the university. He also won a prize in Zhejiang University’s mathematical modelling contest. Ji was an avid photographer, cyclist and enjoyed badminton.

He came to California several years ago on a tour. It was then that Ji decided he wanted to attend graduate school in the US and he enrolled in autumn last year.

Ji had just escorted a study partner home when he was attacked, Dube said.

China’s consulate general in Los Angeles called Ji’s death cruel and said it was concerned about student safety. Students were reminded to take extra security precautions and representatives reached out to US authorities to take measures to ensure the safety of Chinese students, according to a statement from the consulate.

Meanwhile, Chinese students traded messages of sadness and shock and a Taiwanese student association sent out a long message with security tips.

Attorney Daniel Deng, who is representing the family of the students killed in 2012 on a pro bono basis, urged the Chinese government to declare USC an unsafe place to study.

The attack prompted USC to review its programme for educating foreign students about safety issues, said USC Department of Public Safety Deputy Chief David Carlisle.

“There will be improvements by the [autumn] semester,” Carlisle said. “We already do a pretty good job, but clearly there are areas to improve.”

USC has the highest number of international students in the country, with more than 40 per cent of them coming from China.

Garcia, Ochoa and Guerrero were also charged with one count each of second-degree robbery, attempted second-degree robbery and assault with a deadly weapon in another incident the same morning. Ochoa and Guerrero were armed with a knife and bat in that incident, the complaint states.

Police believe the attackers drove to Dockweiler Beach after from the USC area and tried to rob a man and woman. The man escaped and notified police.

If convicted, Garcia and Del Carmen could face the death penalty for Ji’s death. Ochoa and Guerrero can only face up to life in prison without possibility of parole because of their ages. All four are being held without bail.

USC’s urban campus is within 2km of gang-plagued neighbourhoods with historically high crime rates.

Since the 2012 killings, USC has added 60 security cameras, including some license plate readers, for a total of 178 cameras in a 4.7 sq km area that includes blocks off campus, Carlisle said. The university also deploys private security officers in the adjacent neighbourhoods.

In addition, the Los Angeles Police Department has assigned about 30 more officers to the university community since 2012.

Foreign students receive an autumn orientation that specifically addresses public safety, Carlisle said, but the school is now looking at ways to make it more robust and to find better ways to reach out to students, including possibly in their native languages.