Never could have seen this coming' Double tragedy: A campus slaying and the arrest of an upperclassman have shaken the Johns Hopkins community. The violence appears to have risen from a crumbled relationship, documented in the e-mail exchanges between Rex Chao and Robert Harwood Jr.

April 21, 1996|By This article was reported by Gary Cohn, David Folkenflik, Michael James and Scott Shane, and written by Mr. Shane.

Late in January, Johns Hopkins University senior Robert Harwood Jr. pleaded with sophomore Rex Chao not to end their friendship. He made his case in the electronic correspondence that had chronicled their intense relationship and would now mark its collapse.

"You have repeatedly told me how special I am to you and that you will always be there for me and I could call at any time," Mr. Harwood wrote to Mr. Chao. "I've cried out for your assistance, presence and help ... You know I'm a private person, very much an introvert, and when finally I wish to talk, to be silenced by one's friend, really hurts."

Mr. Chao, 19, wanted to cut off all communication. Mr. Harwood, 22, would not let go.

In six meetings over eight weeks with Hopkins' dean of students, Chao often accompanied by his girlfriend, Suzanne Hubbard, expressed annoyance, frustration and alarm over harassment from Mr. Harwood. Mr. Harwood had bombarded them with electronic mail, they said. He had telephoned them as many as 20 times a day, hanging up when they picked up the phone.

And the two students told Dean Susan Boswell one more thing: '' Mr. Harwood had a gun.

The night of April 10, after a College Republican club meeting, Mr. Harwood pulled that .357 Magnum from a duffel bag and shot Mr. Chao in the back of the head as Ms. Hubbard watched in horror, police said. Then, standing over the victim as he lay on the library lawn, he shot him in the chest.

The slaying of Rex Chao was an extraordinary double tragedy for Johns Hopkins -- the loss of a gifted student and the discovery that the man charged in the killing was one of their own.

The bullets were the terrible culmination of an obsessive relationship between two very serious young men. It was colored with a curious formality and an old-fashioned moralism, growing from a shared devotion to Republican politics into a deep mutual affection. The almost-Victorian language of their exchanges contrasted with its new-age electronic medium.

"In the seven months we have known each other, you have been the older brother I never had," Mr. Chao wrote in December, weeks before he would declare the friendship over. "I am forever grateful and indebted to you, and my pride in knowing you and my support and love for you transcend the written word. As the cultivator of my moral awakening, you are the pivotal figure in my life."

The exchanges also document the crumbling of the relationship. On Jan. 31, Mr. Chao speaks of his "fear" of his friend. "I do fear what can be a certain unpredictability on your part. In the past you have become angry or upset at me, sometimes over things I consider trivial, and often at unpredictable times," he wrote.

To a distinguished university whose students usually draw attention for academic diligence and lacrosse prowess, the killing brought an avalanche of unwelcome publicity. Across the campus, students and professors probed the mysteries of this staggering act of violence.

What might have driven Mr. Harwood, a fastidious and deeply religious man, to brutally execute his former protege? And did Hopkins officials take sufficient precautions by requiring Mr. Harwood, who had completed his degree requirements in December and moved home to Rhode Island, simply to give notice when he visited the campus?

For the parents of Ms. Hubbard, Hopkins' actions fell short. "I do not feel they took adequate steps," Linda Hubbard, Suzanne's mother, said Friday. At a minimum, Mrs. Hubbard said, university officials should have notified Baltimore police about the danger to Mr. Chao and her daughter.

Both Mr. Chao and Ms. Hubbard had told friends and their parents they were being "stalked" by Mr. Harwood, Mrs. Hubbard said. Ms. Hubbard, 20, had told her suite mates to keep the doors locked. Rosetta Chao, Mr. Chao's mother, had called the university a month before the killing to express her own concerns, again mentioning Mr. Harwood's gun. (The Chaos declined to be interviewed for this article.)

Hopkins officials insist that they were not told of any threat of physical danger and had no evidence that one existed.

"I honestly don't think there was anything we would do any differently," Dr. Boswell said Friday. Mr. Harwood had never explicitly threatened to harm anyone, she said. The mere fact that he possessed a gun, she said, did not mean he posed a danger.

Peter Yarbro, 21, a Republican club friend of both men, says he had no idea Mr. Harwood was capable of such violence.

"I never could have seen this coming," Mr. Yarbro says. "I don't think anyone has made sense of it."

It is far from clear, in fact, that Mr. Harwood himself has made sense of the slaying.

Moments before the shooting, Mr. Harwood politely introduced himself to Ms. Hubbard. Seconds after the killing, he crossed Charles Street to Wolman Hall, where Mr. Chao and Ms. Hubbard lived. A friend found him pacing frantically, talking to himself.

"I can't believe I did that," he said. "I hope Rex doesn't die."

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