Feng Liu had a lunchtime routine that his colleagues and lab partners at the UNC-Chapel Hill school of pharmacy knew well.
The 59-year-old Durham resident usually had a bite to eat and left his lab for a brisk 30-minute walk on campus or through nearby Chapel Hill neighborhoods. Typically, he returned cheerful and invigorated by the midday exercise.
On Wednesday, the research professor at UNC’s Eshelman School of Pharmacy never came back.
Chapel Hill police said Liu suffered a severe head injury during a robbery at the intersection of Ransom Street and West University Drive about 1 p.m. Wednesday. Prosecutors said during a brief court hearing Thursday afternoon that the two men who robbed Liu hit him in the head with a rock.
The internationally known scientist died early Thursday morning, leaving a college campus grappling with grief, a sense of unease and numerous questions about how such violence could occur in broad daylight in such a tranquil neighborhood.
“I am heartbroken over this horrible tragedy,” Chancellor Carol Folt said in a statement. “I want to assure you that safety and security of students, faculty, staff and visitors on Carolina’s campus and in the surrounding community is my highest priority.”
Derick Davis II, 23, of 2429 Scots Pine Crossing, Durham, and Troy Arrington Jr., 27, of 128 Johnson St., Apt. 5, Chapel Hill, have been charged with first-degree murder. Both are being held in the Orange County jail.
Chapel Hill police spokesman Lt. Josh Mecimore said information from a passer-by who had seen something suspicious in the neighborhood just west of campus helped lead police to the suspects.
No electronic monitoring?
Davis has multiple convictions for felony breaking and entering and larceny, dating to 2007, in Durham County, according to state Department of Public Safety records. He was released from supervised probation on June 30, records show.
Arrington previously was convicted of drug, assault and firearm-related charges, according to Department of Public Safety records.
Arrington also has a pending court date next month in Durham on charges that include breaking and entering, larceny of a dog, obtaining property by false pretenses, conspiracy and being a habitual felon.
Orange County officials said Arrington should have been wearing an electronic ankle monitor as part of a pretrial release program in Durham designed to cut down on jail expenses.
Efforts to reach supervisors of the pretrial release program on Thursday were unsuccessful.
That Durham officials were supposed to be monitoring the suspect sent a familiar chill through Chapel Hill.
Eve Carson, a popular UNC-CH student body president, was kidnapped, robbed and murdered in 2008, and two Durham men who were supposed to be under the watch of the probation office there have been convicted of her murder.
Laurence Lovette, one of those men, is on trial this week in Durham, accused of robbing and killing Abhijit Mahato, a Duke University graduate student found shot to death inside his apartment in January 2008.
“The death of Professor Feng Liu as a result of a serious assault and robbery Wednesday afternoon is a horrible tragedy and a loss for the Chapel Hill community,” Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said Thursday in a statement. “A safe and secure environment is fundamental to our quality of life in Chapel Hill and, as a community, we must not tolerate such senseless violence.”
Optimist, always happy
As word of Liu’s death spread across campus, a deep sense of loss and shock took root in the pharmacy school.
Liu, who oversaw seven people in his lab and was widely published in the United States and overseas, had a reputation for being optimistic, happy and extremely outgoing.
He lived in Durham with his wife and family. Russell Mumper, the vice dean of the pharmacy school, described him as a “loving husband and father who will be greatly missed.”
Liu received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in pharmaceutics science at Shenyang Pharmaceutical University, China, and his doctorate at the University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy.
UNC recruited Liu and a team of researchers from Pittsburgh in 2005. Liu’s focus was gene and drug delivery. He used nanotechnology to try to find ways to improve drug delivery, primarily to cancer patients.
In Chapel Hill, he was recalled as a caring mentor whose passion and zeal for his research were infectious.
On Thursday, Liu’s colleagues and friends had more questions than answers about how the man who regularly greeted them with a smile and bubbling enthusiasm ended up so brutally beaten.
Several people walking through the neighborhood just past the western rim of campus had come upon Liu, barely conscious in the roadway. His breathing was shallow, according to a man who called 911, and he had blood coming out of his ears. The caller told the dispatcher that Liu was on his side and stomach and that a woman studying pre-med and another person were with him, according to the 911 call. Liu moved his arms in the presence of the caller but did not respond to the passers-by.
Police informed the pharmacy school late Wednesday that Liu had been assaulted and taken to the hospital.
Liu’s colleagues and friends found out Thursday morning that he had not survived.
“The school is really in mourning,” said Mumper, the vice dean. “People knew him as a colleague, a friend, a mentor. He was loved in all these capacities. We’re just trying to wrap our heads around what happened.”