Graduate's apartment searched after campus attack with SUV
BY SHARIF DURHAMS AND ERIC FRAZIER
Knight Ridder Newspapers
CARRBORO, N.C. - University of North Carolina police say Mohammed Reza Taheri-azar told them he drove an SUV through a UNC Chapel Hill crowd to avenge the deaths of Muslims worldwide.
Investigators would find more clues if they looked in his apartment, Taheri-azar told the officers.
That's why a bomb squad broke into Taheri-azar apartment in this town a couple of miles from the university Friday and were probing inside until Saturday morning.
"He indicated to us we would find the reason for the attack in his apartment," said UNC Police Chief Derek Poarch, who revealed a few details Saturday of his department's interviews with Taheri-azar, 22.
"There is every indication in this early stage of the investigation that he acted alone," Poarch said. "There is no indication whatsoever that he acted in concert with anyone."
Police are holding Taheri-azar in a Raleigh, N.C., prison on $5.5 million bond, and have charged him with nine counts of attempted murder and nine counts of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill.
Taheri-azar's rented silver Jeep Cherokee drove through the Pit, a sunken brick-paved campus hangout, and hit nine people, police said. Five students and a visiting lecturer were taken to UNC Hospitals; all six had been released by late Friday.
The incident came as the campus was still reeling from the death of a sophomore who crashed through a dorm window and fell four stories a week earlier. The twin tragedies have taxed the university's grief counselors, who still had students approaching them Saturday.
"All of our students have been through a lot," said Margaret Jablonski, the school's vice chancellor for student affairs. "We will continue to do all we can to support the university community during this difficult time."
Taheri-azar will make his first appearance in court Monday.
Poarch's agency is leading the investigation, which involves the FBI, the State Bureau of Investigation and two local agencies.
The chief would not say what investigators found in Taheri-azar's apartment. Police had blasted open his door and reporters looked inside Saturday. Several books, including a paperback copy of the Quran and a book that calls for the United States to confront state sponsors of terrorism, line a wall of his bedroom. A calendar hangs on the wall with devotional Muslim sayings.
U.S. Army pamphlets lay spread on a stripped-down mattress. Across the room was a letter from a Florida college, inviting Taheri-azar to interview for a graduate student program later this month.
Authorities have said he was born in Iran. Poarch says he's lived in the United States for several years.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools officials couldn't confirm Saturday whether Taheri-azar attended a local school.
But Erin Ludwick, a 2001 graduate of South Mecklenburg High School, said Taheri-azar was in several of her Advanced Placement honors classes.
"We called him Mo-Mo," she recalled. "I spoke to him many, many times. A very nice guy. I can't believe this happened."
Ludwick and her parents said Taheri-azar, his mother and his sister lived next door to them in Charlotte, N.C., for about five years. Taheri-azar's family moved about two years ago, said Erin's father, Steve Ludwick.
Erin's mother, Pat Ludwick, said she went over to introduce herself shortly after Taheri-azar's family moved in. His mother struggled with English, Pat Ludwick said. She'd sometimes see Taheri-azar coming and going.
"He always waved. He was relatively friendly," Pat Ludwick said. "But they always stayed to themselves."
Taheri-azar, who majored in psychology and philosophy, graduated from UNC Chapel Hill in December, university officials say. A police report says he was working at a local sandwich shop.
There have been tensions between some campus Muslim students and the student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, in recent months, though Poarch says police have no evidence the dispute motivated Taheri-azar.
The campus paper published a commentary criticizing Arabs last fall. Last month, the paper drew a cartoon depicting the Muslim Prophet Muhammad, which led to a sit-in at the newspaper's offices.
Taheri-azar was only nominally involved with the group that organized the sit-in, the campus Muslim Student Association, Poarch said.
The Muslim student group's president, Uzma Kahn, would not elaborate Saturday. Police say they don't know of ties between Taheri-azar and any other organized Muslim groups.
Several members of Charlotte's Muslim community also said they didn't know of him or his family, and expressed dismay about reports that he felt he was avenging Muslims.
"It's a tragic thing," said Habib Khan, a member of the Islamic Society of Charlotte. "Running cars at people has nothing to do with the treatment of people; it doesn't make it any better or solve any problems."
Jibril Hough, spokesman for the Islamic Society, said the Muslim community has been struggling to cope with the controversy over cartoons caricaturing the Prophet Muhammad.
"It's definitely not going to do anything to help the atmosphere right now," he said. "It's definitely making things more tense."
CHAPEL HILL -- The man accused of hitting nine people with an SUV on the UNC campus Friday was trying "to avenge the deaths of Muslims around the world," the campus public safety director said Saturday.
Mohammed Reza Taheri-azar, 22, was charged Saturday with nine counts of attempted first-degree murder and was being held at Central Prison in Raleigh on a $5.5 million bond. Police also charged Taheri-azar, a native of Iran, with nine counts of assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury with intent to kill.
He will have a first appearance in court Monday.
Although an FBI source had told The Associated Press soon after Friday's attack that Taheri-azar said he acted to avenge American treatment of Muslims, other law-enforcement officials initially downplayed that as a possible motive. But at a news conference Saturday, Derek Poarch, director of public safety at UNC, said, "Our ongoing investigation indicates that the suspect's motive was to avenge the deaths of Muslims around the world."
There was no indication Taheri-azar, who graduated from UNC in December with dual bachelor's degrees in psychology and philosophy, worked with anyone else to plan or carry out the attack, Poarch said.
The investigation was still in its early stages, however, Poarch stressed, and he declined to discuss what, if anything, had been discovered in a search of Taheri-azar's apartment Friday evening, except to say nothing dangerous was found.
None of the nine people injured in the attack was hospitalized overnight, Poarch said.
Police say Taheri-azar intentionally drove a rented Jeep Cherokee through The Pit, a popular campus meeting area, just before noon Friday. According to police, he then drove off campus, but called 911 and told emergency personnel where to find him.
The State Bureau of Investigation and the FBI have been involved in the investigation, and the SBI bomb squad assisted in searching Taheri-azar's Carrboro apartment. However, a spokesman in the FBI's Charlotte office said Saturday that the agency was mostly leaving the investigation to local authorities.
Poarch said he didn't know how fast Taheri-azar allegedly drove through The Pit, a brick area surrounded by buildings and not immediately accessible from the street.
Witnesses had estimated he was driving 35 miles per hour or more. But Poarch said in situations such as Friday's, with someone driving in an enclosed area, it was not uncommon for speed estimates to be high.
"I don't think you could necessarily drive through The Pit at that speed," Poarch said.
A report from UNC's Public Safety office showed that Taheri-azar had worked at Jimmy John's Subs on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill.
Dan Mall, manager at Jimmy Johns, said Taheri-azar had worked there for about three weeks after graduation, and was "a model employee." He declined further comment, citing the investigation.
Poarch said Taheri-azar has been cooperating with investigators.
Taheri-azar lived with roommates, Poarch said, and they have been interviewed and did not appear to be involved in the attack.
The Muslim Student Association at UNC posted a statement on its Web site Friday night condemning the incident. Attempts to reach members of the association Saturday were not successful.
There was no indication that Friday's incident was related to the campus newspaper's recent publication of a cartoon depicting the prophet Muhammad, said Margaret Jablonski, vice chancellor for student affairs. About 20 students upset by the cartoon held a peaceful sit-in at the newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, on Feb. 20.
Earlier cartoons depicting the prophet, particularly in a Danish newspaper, sparked riots around the Muslim world. At least 29 people have been killed in the protests, according to a count by The Associated Press, and several Western embassies and consulates have been damaged or destroyed.
UNC has counselors available for students, faculty and staff, Jablonski said. As of Saturday's press conference, about 50 students had sought counseling, she said.
The university also sent out a campuswide e-mail about the incident, and the same e-mail was sent to parents, Jablonski said. The university had also been in touch with those injured.
Friday's attack came a week after two students, including a resident adviser, fell from a third-floor residence hall window.
Keith Shawn Smith, 20, of Greensboro, died in the fall, and Tyler Joseph Ely Downey, 19, a freshman from Asheville, was injured.
"We had a lot of students already hurting," Jablonski said.
At The Pit on Saturday afternoon, there was little indication of what had gone on the day before. Students sat outside in the sun, studying or talking.
"I'm just glad he didn't come through when classes changed," said John Francis, a UNC senior from Westfield, who was walking through the area.
When Francis heard an account of Taheri-azar's alleged motive, he said, "I don't see why it would happen on a pretty liberal campus."
Tamara Holliday, a freshman from Wilmington, was crossing The Pit Saturday afternoon.
"I would say that I'm a little freaked out," she said. On Friday, she was standing outside in the area and went into a building just before the SUV came through. She had been standing next to a girl who was injured, she said.
"I thought, 'Wow, that could have been me,' " she said.
Saturday was also quiet at University Commons, where Taheri-azar lived. The door to his apartment was off its hinges, and there was black powder on either side of the door.
A neighbor, Holly Ruo, said she didn't know Taheri-azar or his roommates. Except for the occasional party, the apartment complex was usually quiet, she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.