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Dunster Murder-Suicide Remembered

Some House Residents Apprehensive; Dean Sends Letter About Facts, Advising

By Sarah J. Schaffer

Harvard is still feeling repercussions from May's murder-suicide in Dunster House.

On May 28, Sinedu Tadesse '96 stabbed her roommate Trang Phuong Ho '96 to death and then hanged herself in her Dunster House bathroom. The tragedy has prompted the organization of several campus meetings and a reexamination of the advising system.

Though a house tutor--not undergraduates--now lives in the Dunster House H-21 double suite that was the scene of the murder-suicide, students interviewed last week at the house said they are still bothered by the incident.

One senior who lived in G-Entry, just next to Tadesse and Ho's H-Entry, heard screams coming from their room the morning of the murder. She said she was apprehensive about coming back this year.

"I wasn't feeling comfortable coming back here this year, and neither was my roommate," said the senior, who asked that her name not be printed. "It's not like we think it's going to happen again. You just don't want to go back into a house where this happened."

She added that she hopes the tragedy will convince tutors to play a more active role in the life of the house.

"The tutors do tend to be in their own little worlds," she said. "They need to reach out too. I just hope they're a little more aware of student life."

But another student said the incident has no direct relation to the house itself.

"This is a great house to begin with, and the staff is a wonder," said Elizabeth A. Papp '97. "It's just a tragedy that this incident happened. I don't feel that you can blame it on the house."

And Robin S. Goldstein '96 said her affiliation with Dunster House has "affected other people's reactions to me more than my own."

Dunster students will be able to attend two meetings, Wednesday, Sept. 27 and Monday, Oct. 2 from 7-8:30, to discuss their feelings about the incident.

These will not be informational gatherings, but rather chances for students to talk about the murder-suicide, said Dunster Senior Tutor Suzi Naiburg. Representatives from the Bureau of Study Counsel and Life Raft will coordinate the sessions.

On Saturday, September 23, there will be a service of prayer and remembrance in Memorial Church at 11 a.m. It will be open to all members of the Harvard community.

Letter from Lewis

To set the record straight officially, Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis '68 sent a letter to parents at the end of August telling them exactly what happened on May 28 and reminding them of Harvard's advising services.

In it, he emphasized that "neither student was living outside the College's carefully woven advising system."

"Both students were in close contact with their academic advisor and seemed to be managing the ups and downs of college life," the letter continued.

Lewis added in the letter that he wants to ensure that "the College provide ongoing and strong support to all our undergraduates and...make them aware of resources to help students experiencing trouble of any kind, inside or outside the classroom."

In an interview last week, Lewis said that he wanted to take the opportunity to remind students of Harvard's advising system.

"It's a learning moment where I think ears might be open that might not otherwise be open," Lewis said.

Over the summer, Lewis received a few calls from parents about the murder-suicide, but they were mainly factual clarifications, he said.

What Happened

About 8 a.m. on May 28, the last day for students to move out of their houses, Sinedu Tadesse '96 stabbed her roommate Trang Phuong Ho '96 to death with a knife in Ho's bedroom.

Ho suffered about 45 stab wounds to the face, neck, chest, arms and legs.

Tadesse also stabbed Thao Nguyen, a 26-year-old from Lowell, Mass., who was visiting Ho. Nguyen survived.

The motive behind Tadesse's actions is still unknown and probably always will be.

But a letter The Harvard Crimson received five days before the stabbing indicated that the murder could have been premeditated.

Inside an envelope retrieved from a Crimson dumpster the night of May 28, a wallet-sized color photograph of Tadesse accompanied a cryptic note:

"Keep this picture," the typewritten note read. "There will soon be a very juicy story involving the person in this picture."

The envelope had no stamp or return address.

Police could not be reached last week to determine whether the note was sent by Tadesse.

After the May incident, friends and neighbors described both students as calm and studious.

They were both foreign-born--Tadesse in Ethiopia and Ho in Vietnam. Both were 20 years old, concentrated in biology and wanted to become doctors.

On the surface, their roommate relationship appeared untroubled. Their sophomore year coming into Dunster, both were "floaters."

Tadesse's actions surprised one Dunster resident who knew her.

"It would come as less of a surprise to me if [Tadesse] just committed suicide, because since she was always so quiet I could see how she could be depressed," said Nan Zheng '96, who met Tadesse during first-year orientation week and occasionally ate lunch and dinner with her over the past three years.

"But to hurt somebody else is what I cannot imagine her doing. I guess she just couldn't take it anymore," said Zheng, who is a Crimson editor.

At the International Community School in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where Tadesse attended high school, she was known as a stellar student. She was president of the student government and on the staff of the yearbook.

Based on her academic record and financial need, Tadesse received a full scholarship to Harvard.

Tadesse did not participate in many extracurricular activities at Harvard, preferring instead to concentrate on her studies. She did, however, join the Harvard African Students Association as a first-year.

Ho too succeeded at a-young age. As a boat refugee 10 years ago from Vietnam, she settled in Dorchester with her father and older sister. She was reunited with her mother and younger sister two years ago.

Ho attended the Boston Technical High School, where she became the valedictorian of her senior class and was voted most likely to succeed. She was the only graduate in her public high school class to attend Harvard, friends said.

In 1994, Ho served as vice president of the Harvard Vietnamese Association. One friend said Ho devoted herself to the organization.

"Sometimes when they were organizing events, she would not sleep. She would be so self-deprived just for the events," the friend remembered. "She was so worn down, but she continued doing it for the club."

On the morning of the murder, stunned and appalled Dunster residents--most of whom had never spoken with the quiet Tadesse and Ho--crowded the courtyard.

When Tadesse was removed from the house on a stretcher, one junior said, "They carried her away with a respirator over her mouth. It was very strange seeing that. I just can't quite appreciate what that means. I can't believe it."

The week after the deaths, members of the African Students Association, Harvard Vietnamese Association and Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III spoke at a campus-wide discussion about the incident.

The day after the murder-suicide, University Health Services tripled the number of psychiatric staff normally available to talk with students.

Although nothing has been added to Harvard's advising system as a result of the murder-suicide, Lewis said he wants all students to know what outlets are available to them.

The murder-suicide marked the third and fourth deaths of Dunster House residents end affiliates in the 1995-96 academic year.

Former Dunster resident Kathryn L. Tucker '94 committed suicide in April after a long struggle with depression, and Dunster resident Anagar Hansen '97 killed himself one week later.

According to Harvard administrators and police, the murder-suicide was by far the most violent crime involving a Harvard College student on campus in at least two decades.

Michael M. Luo contributed to this report.

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