6 hurt as driver plows into students

Local, state and federal agencies investigate. A complex is evacuated while the suspect's apartment is searched

Staff WritersMarch 4, 2006 

A man who drove a Jeep Cherokee Laredo into a lunchtime crowd on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus Friday, striking nine people, may have been protesting Americans' treatment of Muslims.

Six people had been released from UNC Hospitals by Friday evening. None was seriously injured, university officials said. The three others declined to be treated.

According to the Associated Press, suspect Mohammed Reza Taheri-azar, 22, a native of Iran, "allegedly made statements that he acted to avenge the American treatment of Muslims," FBI Special Agent Richard Kolko said. "The ongoing investigation will work to confirm this."

Witnesses saw the sport utility vehicle approach The Pit, the student hub outside the Student Union, at 11:53 a.m. The driver accelerated along the edge of the sunken plaza, before speeding away.

Taheri-azar (ta-hur-eh-ZAR) then called 911, telling police to come get him. He surrendered without incident at Plant and Hillview roads about two miles away, near University Mall, according to police.

UNC-CH police said they would charge Taheri-azar, of 303 Smith Level Road, Apt. D34, Carrboro, with nine counts of attempted first-degree murder and nine counts of assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury with intent to kill.

About 30 minutes after the incident, Carrboro police began evacuating the University Commons apartment complex where the 2005 UNC-CH graduate lives with two roommates.

"He made comments and said things regarding where he lives and things he may have that put us in concern for safety," Capt. Joel Booker of the Carrboro Police Department said.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, the State Bureau of Investigation and other local emergency agencies, including a bomb squad, joined police at the apartment complex at Smith Level and BPW Club roads.

Niralee Shah, a senior at UNC-CH, had just woke up from a nap when a man in a helmet and vest with a large gun banged on her door. When she opened it, Shah said, he grabbed her by the arm and said she had to leave.

Shah quickly grabbed her shoes and coat and joined other residents outside the building.

From about 100 feet away, Shah watched with others as police aimed guns at a third-floor apartment in Building D while they crouched behind a car they used as a barricade.

Students were allowed back into the complex about 8:30 p.m., even as police continued searching Taheri-azar's apartment.

"At this point we do not feel there is any more concern for public safety," Booker said. "No bomb, nothing like that."

Dual-major graduate

Taheri-azar was not part of the UNC-CH Muslim Students Association, and a student who participated in a recent sit-in at The Daily Tar Heel office protesting the newspaper's publishing of a cartoon depicting the prophet Mohammed said Taheri-azar was not part of the protest.

"We absolutely condemn any kind of violence," said freshman Salma Mirza 18. "I hope those were not his motivations.

"Islam is a religion of peace," she added. The majority of Muslims on campus condemn violence, she said.

Gordon Pitz, a psychology professor, taught Taheri-azar in two classes. "I just fell over," he said about hearing the news.

Taheri-azar stood out in Pitz's Decision Theory and Research Methods classes, but nothing would have predicted Friday's incident, the professor said.

"This is a class of about 200 people. Of those, probably about 150 I never get to know. Mohammed I did get to know," Pitz said.

"He was one of those students who was very assertive in asking questions," Pitz explained. "He obviously cared a lot about his performance. Even in the very large class I taught, he was very willing to ask questions and get involved in discussions."

Brad Copeland, 20, a sophomore journalism major, worked with Taheri-azar at Jimmy John's sandwich shop on West Franklin Street. He also took a philosophy class with him.

"He wasn't shy in class -- not shy to speak up," Copeland said. "It was clear that he read the material and understood it and seemed to be pretty smart."

Taheri-azar graduated in December, receiving a bachelor's degree with a dual major in psychology and philosophy.

Until December, he was living in Chapel Hill's Northampton Plaza Apartments at 600 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

A Social Security number was issued to him in 1991. He registered to vote in Orange County in 2004.

In August 2003, Taheri-azar was convicted of unsafe movement after being charged with driving left of center and failing to obey a traffic officer in Orange County, according to police records.

A month later, he was convicted of reckless driving to endanger for speeding and reckless driving, also in Orange County.

His address both times was listed as 3125 English Sparrow Lane in Charlotte. Neighbors there say they knew the family as the Taheris and believe Taheri-azar lived with his mother and younger sister. The family has since moved away.

In July 1999, a Mohamed Dhahran Taheri of the same address was charged with reckless driving to endanger and driving without a license in Mecklenburg County.

'It was so surreal'

On Friday, students changing classes said they paid the silver SUV little notice until the driver revved the engine and sped around the corner of Lenoir Dining Hall.

"People started screaming and jumping out of the way," said Katherine Wallace, 22, of Cary who was sitting at a table in the area. "It was so surreal.

"I remember vividly that a girl just flew off the windshield and rolled off the side of the car," Wallace said. "Then, she just sat up from where she got hit."

The vehicle had an Enterprise Rental Car sticker on the back bumper. Police said a laptop was found in the vehicle. Shortly before 1 p.m., officers had the SUV released from a tow truck and moved bystanders away, citing safety concerns.

Friends identified two of the injured students as freshman Brittany Williams and sophomore Tiffany McDole. Williams was campaigning for the student group Black Student Movement when she was hit. McDole declined to comment Friday.

Sharee Posey, 18, a freshman, was sitting on a ledge next to Lenoir when she saw the SUV speed past her. Kamishia Thomas, also 18, said she felt the vehicle brush her as it passed.

"It all happened really fast," said Kristen Cabe, 19, a sophomore who was standing nearby.

"It had to be deliberate," said Caity Brown-Geist, 22, a senior from Guilford, Conn. "I'm pretty much in shock because it happened so fast. People didn't have time to get out of the way. It didn't seem like it was really happening."

"I'm about to graduate, and I've always felt safe here," Brown-Geist said. "It made me realize you're never really safe. Freak things happen all the time."

The injured students' parents have been contacted, and the university is providing counselors throughout the weekend in the student union building as well as at UNC Hospitals.

Staff writer Meiling Arounnarath can be reached at 932-2004 or meiling.arounnarath@newsobserver.com.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service