University of Utah president says review of February murder ‘revealed shortcomings’ in keeping student safe

File photo: University of Utah

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah, July 19, 2022 (Gephardt Daily) — University of Utah President Taylor Randall says an internal investigation into the university’s handling of an 19-year-old student’s murder in February “revealed shortcomings” in efforts to ensure her safety.

The university released a timeline Tuesday of interactions first-year student Zhifan Dong had with law enforcement, housing officials and other university offices in the weeks leading up to her death Feb. 11.

Fellow University of Utah student Haoyu Wang, 27, was charged with first-degree felony murder for allegedly injecting Dong with a fatal dose of heroin in a Salt Lake City hotel room as part of a suicide pact. Both were international students from China who enrolled in fall 2021 and lived in on-campus housing, university officials said.

“Although the university made extensive efforts to support and ensure the safety of Dong and provide assistance to Wang, our self-evaluation revealed shortcomings,” Randall said in a letter to University of Utah students, faculty, staff and community.

Those shortcomings, he said, include:

  • A delay by university housing services employees in notifying University of Utah police about indications of intimate partner violence.
  • Processes, procedures and trainings related to housing that “needed to be clarified and improved.”
  • And “insufficient and unprofessional internal communication.”

“We have addressed each of these areas, including employment actions,” Randall said.

Changes made as a result of the university’s internal investigation include:

  • Updating and clarifying emergency procedures for housing employees.
  • An organizational restructuring to streamline reporting processes.
  • Hiring a new executive director of housing.
  • Refining processes for communications between housing officials and university police.
  • Implementing regular audits of conduct, racism and bias incidents at university housing.

The timeline includes 25 actions by university employees and law enforcement over a 29-day period leading up to Dong’s death Feb. 11.

While staying with Wang at a downtown motel Jan. 12, Dong reported “an act of intimate partner violence” to employees at the front desk, according to the timeline. Wang was later arrested by Salt Lake City police and booked into jail, court documents state.

Wang was released “within hours” and Dong was issued a temporary protective order, though no notice was provided to university officials, according to the timeline. Dong called police again on Jan. 13 “due to Wang’s behavior,” court documents state.

On Jan. 14, Dong informed university housing officials that Wang may be suicidal and asked them to conduct a wellness check, according to to the timeline. University officials say it was the first notice they received about the Jan. 12 incident.

The timeline indicates university housing officials tried unsuccessfully to check on Wang three times between Jan. 14 and Jan. 19. On Jan. 24, housing officials located Wang in his room and offered assistance. University officials say Wang told them he had a counseling appointment later and did not need further assistance.

Housing officials also conducted several welfare checks on Dong between Jan. 14 and Feb. 6 after her roommate reported she hadn’t seen Dong in awhile and was concerned about her, according to the timeline.

On Feb. 11, Wang sent an email to a housing administrator at 3:51 a.m. “saying he and Dong are still in love and have decided to die by suicide together,” university officials said. The housing administrator read the email at 4:55 a.m. and immediately called University of Utah police, according to the timeline.

Police pinged both students’ phones between 5 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. and eventually located them at Quality Inn, 616 S. 200 West, where Wang had been staying since Feb. 3, university officials said. University of Utah and Salt Lake City police officers responded and entered the motel room, according to the timeline.

After administering first aid to Dong, officers determined she was deceased, court documents state. Wang was taken into custody and booked into the Salt Lake County Jail.

Charging documents say Wang told police that he and his girlfriend “decided to use opioids to have a painless death,” so he purchased “heroin and fentanyl on the dark net.” Wang said he “didn’t want to see (Dong) suffer so he injected her with a high dose of heroin,” court documents state.

Samples of “unknown white powders found in the motel room” later tested positive for fentanyl and ketamine, according to charging documents.


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