Victim `a beacon of life'

Mourning: Relatives and classmates seek answers in a murder-suicide at UMBC involving a husband and wife.

July 01, 2004|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

Jessica Soto Perez was working toward a doctorate in biochemical engineering, hoping, her fellow students said, to one day return to her native Puerto Rico to teach.

Yesterday, her classmates and professors at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, mourned the loss of a friend who, as one put it, "radiated her love for learning."

Perez, a 26-year-old graduate student at UMBC, was fatally shot Tuesday night in the parking lot of the school's Catonsville campus by her husband, who then shot himself, witnesses told Baltimore County police.

Joehan Saiter, 31, worked for a local Brinks security service and legally possessed the handgun found at the crime scene, said Bill Toohey, spokesman for the county police.

Relatives of Perez, a 1999 graduate of a Puerto Rican university, flocked yesterday to the Owings Mills apartment she shared with her husband and her younger brother.

Fellow graduate students and faculty members at UMBC, who described Perez as a "vibrant member of the community," said they saw no signs of trouble in her marriage. The couple had no children, friends and relatives said.

County police said yesterday they have no record of being called to the couple's apartment. A review of Maryland court records found no criminal history for Saiter.

Janet C. Rutledge, acting dean of UMBC's graduate school, said Perez rarely spoke about her husband. Rutledge said she could not recall ever seeing him at the campus.

At school, where she spent much of her time, Perez's wide smile and happy, engaging personality belied any problems she may have had at home, said Rutledge, who worked with Perez on minority recruitment efforts.

"No one on campus knew that she was dealing with any situation like this in her personal life," she said.

County police said they believe the shooting stemmed from an argument between the couple. They were called to UMBC about 7:30 p.m. for a report of shots fired.

Witnesses said they saw Saiter shoot his wife several times and then shoot himself in the head, according to John P. Cook, chief of the campus police.

Other than a suicide at UMBC three years ago, the campus police chief could recall no similar acts of violence in the university's 40-year history.

Yesterday, fellow graduate students and faculty members recalled tearfully how Perez had become an integral part of university life - often helping to recruit and mentor students at the 12,000-student campus.

"She was a beautiful person, inside and out," said Sonia Arteaga, a graduate student in psychology and part of a peer mentor program called Promise, of which Perez was an active member. "She was a beacon of life. ... She made such wonderful contributions."

Vera Roquemore, another peer mentor and clinical psychology graduate student, said, "Jessica's story was inspirational."

Perez had come to the United States shortly after obtaining an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering from the University of Puerto Rico Mayaguez - a program taught only in English, Roquemore said.

She had married Saiter in Puerto Rico, and the two lived for several years in New England. In September 2001, she enrolled at UMBC.

There, she studied chromatography, a science that examines the separation of molecules based on differences in their structure and composition, said Rutledge, the graduate school dean.

Perez has many cousins and other relatives in the United States, mostly in New Jersey, said Diana Perez, who is married to one of those cousins.

Family members consoled one another on the lawn in front of Jessica Perez's small apartment near Rosewood Center state hospital. Perez's parents were expected to arrive late yesterday from Puerto Rico, said Diana Perez.

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