Two promising young men come to a deadly collision Hopkins student faces charge of killing ex-friend

April 12, 1996|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Peter Hermann, Joan Jacobson and Joe Mathews contributed to this article.

Johns Hopkins University students Rex Chao and Robert Harwood Jr. were two young men with promise. One was a passionate violinist who knew he wanted to go to law school. The other, a high school valedictorian, dreamed of public service after graduating this May.

Two shots ended one student's life. The other student sits in a Baltimore booking center, facing a murder charge.

Mr. Chao, a devoted musician who had just been named chairman of the campus chapter of the College Republicans, lies dead. His body rests in the state medical examiner's office, felled by two bullets from a .357 Magnum. He was a sophomore, 19 years old.

Police say those shots were fired by Mr. Harwood, a high school valedictorian who had completed his bachelor's degree in chemistry in 3 1/2 years. He was to have received his degree this May.

A stunning spring day yesterday brought tours of prospective students and their parents. They had to share the campus with television news crews pursuing the shooting.

Robert John Harwood is the son of a hard-working, middle-class family that lives in a tree-lined neighborhood of Victorian homes in Bradford, R.I., neighbors said. Now 22, Mr. Harwood graduated in 1992 from Chariho Regional High School in nearby Hopkinton. He was an engaging, if argumentative, student who stood out for his interest in science and medicine, his high school principal said. He was delighted to be accepted at Hopkins. Once at Hopkins, friends said, his love of argument and of conservative politics led him to take over the nearly moribund College Republicans. He served as chairman during his sophomore and junior years and, friends said, revived the group's fortunes.

Mr. Harwood impressed his fellow students and teachers in high school and college as an earnest, thoughtful man unlikely to be a threat to anyone. He had returned to live with his parents while awaiting his diploma ceremony.

"I never saw him be offensive to anyone," said Ted Morgan, principal of Chariho Regional High. "His relationships with the kids here were always on a high level, an adult level."

Rex Tze-Ming Chao arrived at Johns Hopkins in the fall of 1994 fresh from the prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. A sharp student, Mr. Chao nonetheless did not stand out academically from his peers, who included some of the nation's top high school students. Teachers said he was a slight, boyish-looking young man, deferential and respectful except in two forums: music and politics.

He was an emphatic, physical violinist, swaying and rocking as he played. At Andover, some of his fellow musicians said he was too mannered, too overstated in his approach. But Peter Warsaw, then chairman of Andover's music department, said he was won over by Mr. Chao's sincerity. At a performance of a Mendelssohn violin concerto in December 1993, Mr. Warsaw said, Mr. Chao transfixed the audience, which included Mr. Warsaw's 7-year-old daughter.

ZTC "She decided that she wants to be a violinist, so she can perform the Mendelssohn [piece] that Rex played," Mr. Warsaw said. To this day, his daughter measures her progress by how long it will take her to reach Mr. Chao's level, her father said.

Instructors at Andover and at Hopkins' Peabody Institute of Music said he was good enough to pursue a career in music. But he was firmly pre-law, he told them, and followed a demanding curriculum in international studies.

Mr. Chao, in his own quiet way, was quite ambitious, friends said. He befriended Mr. Harwood early in his college career, and it was seemingly a natural alliance.

Both men were unshaken in their conservative convictions. Mr. Harwood was considered the godfather of Hopkins conservatives, and Mr. Chao sought out opportunities with major Republicans: by serving as an intern in the Capitol Hill office of U.S. Rep. Susan Molinari of New York, and by working on the Maryland gubernatorial campaign of Ellen R. Sauerbrey.

But then the friendship with Mr. Chao soured, a Hopkins spokesman said. Police say that Mr. Chao told campus administrators earlier this year that Mr. Harwood had harassed him and his girlfriend, Suzanne Hubbard, 20. Campus officials required Mr. Harwood to inform them whenever he returned to campus. He did so earlier this week, saying that he wanted to attend Wednesday's election of a new College Republicans' chairman.

Mr. Harwood actively opposed his one-time friend's bid to be chairman of the Republican group. After the meeting late Wednesday evening in Shriver Hall, Mr. Harwood followed Mr. Chao and Ms. Hubbard outside. Police say he shot Mr. Chao, stood over him, and fired again.

Yesterday, as students, faculty and other employees grappled solemnly with Mr. Chao's death, they asked themselves questions to which they did not have answers. "I don't know what the heck a Hopkins student is doing running around with a gun," said Steven David, chairman of the school's political science department. "What a waste. You know?"

Pub Date: 4/12/96

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