The Physics of Revenge : WHEN DR. LU GANG’S AMERICAN DREAM DIED, SIX PEOPLE DIED WITH IT
INSIDE ROOM 309,a third-floor classroom in concrete-and-brick Van Allen Hall on the University of Iowa campus, Ken Nishikawa was standing at an old-fashioned blackboard. He was lecturing to a weekly graduate seminar in plasma physics when Dr. Lu Gang’s first shot rang out. * At first, some of the graduate students in the room thought it might be a firecracker. It was Friday afternoon, last Nov. 1, and one of the students later recalled thinking it must be some sort of prank. “What are you doing, Lu Gang?” he thought to himself. “Halloween is over.” The pretty blue smoke coming out of Lu Gang’s .38-caliber revolver added to the unreality, the seeming playfulness of it all. * But it was no joke. In an instant, Prof. Christoph K. Goertz--one of America’s top space physicists, a specialist on Jupiter and Saturn--slumped in his chair, bleeding from the back of his head. Lu Gang, who had been behind Goertz near the door, took a step to his left and fired again, directly into the face of Dr. Shan Linhua, Lu’s former roommate, friend and rival within the Iowa physics and astronomy department. Shan fell. * By now, the other eight scientists in the room were diving under chairs or the brown, oval seminar table. Among them was Prof. Robert A. Smith, Goertz’s protege, himself an expert on space and plasma physics. As Smith sought protection under the table, Lu took a step toward him and fired three shots, hitting Smith in the chest. Then Lu Gang walked out of the seminar room, turned right and down one flight of stairs. Between floors, Lu reloaded his Brazilian-made Taurus revolver. By the time he entered the bright, airy office of Prof. Dwight R. Nicholson, chairman of the department, he was ready to fire again. * Upstairs, panicked students scattered from the seminar into nearby classrooms, their hands trembling as they tried to lock the doors behind them. A Chinese student named Wu Li* stumbled into the room next to 309, dialed 911 for the police and handed the phone to an American, afraid that in the frenzy of the moment his usually trusty and long-studied English might jam in his throat. * Lu aimed three shots at Nicholson, wheeled and returned upstairs to the seminar room, where Smith was still alive. He fired again, finishing off Smith and, just to make sure, pumped one more round each into Goertz and Shan. * Lu’s mission wasn’t quite finished. He walked downstairs, exited the physics building and turned left. On a freezing-cold afternoon, he strode a full three blocks along the southern edge of the campus to Jessup Hall, the drab gray-stone administration building, where he asked for T. Anne Cleary, the university’s associate vice president for academic affairs. Told she was unavailable, Lu grew angry, shouting and creating a stir until she appeared outside her office. He fired at Cleary, the bullet entering through her left nostril, then pivoted and fired again, striking Miya Rodolfo-Sioson, the 23-year-old Filipino-American student working as a temp outside Cleary’s office, in the mouth.
As police began to converge on the building, Lu walked the length of Jessup Hall toward the office of President Hunter Rawlings. He never went in. He may have had designs on Rawlings, but as it turned out, the university head was in Columbus, Ohio, where Iowa’s beloved football team, the Hawkeyes, was preparing for the next day’s Big 10 game against Ohio State. Finally, with shotgun-carrying officers beginning fevered door-to-door searches on the ground floor, Lu walked upstairs to an empty classroom, Room 203, and took his own life.
In 20 minutes, Lu had killed himself and five others and left one more person, Sioson, paralyzed for life.
THE CLICHE ABOUT AMERICAN MASS MURDERERS IS THAT THEY “WENT berserk.” But as it turned out, there was little that was berserk about Lu Gang’s crime. The 28-year-old Lu, who had come to Iowa as one of China’s most promising prospects in advanced physics, had been methodically planning it for half a year.
In May he had purchased his first gun. Over the summer, he purchased another and began practicing against targets until he was proficient. In the weeks before the murders, he emptied his bank accounts, mailing the money home to his sister in China with instructions to deposit it quickly. On the day of the crime, he left a letter inside a briefcase in the seminar room, photocopies of which he had mailed to the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and Iowa news media, detailing his grievances against most of his victims.
Lu knew exactly whom he wanted to shoot and why. Goertz, Smith and Nicholson were professors who he felt had spurned him and favored his rival, Shan; Cleary was one of the university administrators who seemed to have ignored his written complaints. On that Friday, Lu let others escape unharmed. He walked past them, and passed by several other buildings, in his march of death from Van Allen to Jessup halls.
The only random victim was Sioson, and it will remain a mystery whether Lu thought she threatened him, whether her pretty dancer’s physique awoke memories of his past sexual frustrations or whether, in the last frantic moments before his death, Lu simply stopped being so coolly discriminating with his bullets.
Looked at one way, Lu Gang’s mass murder marks the point in American university life where the endlessly polite, back-stabbing feuds of academia erupted into the violence of the American prairie, of “Badlands” and “In Cold Blood.”
The recession was an underlying factor. It had hit American universities, and the field of physics, as hard as anyplace else. Lu, who had finished his doctorate the previous spring, was having trouble landing a job. “Normally, if a (postdoctoral) student doesn’t have a job, we keep supporting him at half pay, as a teaching assistant or whatever,” says Prof. Gerald Payne, the acting chairman of Iowa’s depleted physics faculty. But that year there was room for only one postdoctoral fellowship in physics--and that went to Shan, fueling Lu’s bitterness.
Looked at another way, Lu’s crime marks the point where one Chinese student adopted a bit too much of the wrong America.
Lu Gang was one among more than 50,000 Chinese on American university campuses, the largest group of foreign students and postgraduate scholars in the United States. Many are studying science, like Lu. And most, again like Lu, depend on jobs as teaching or research assistants to pay for the things, such as tuition and living expenses, that enable them to stay on in this country.
Some of these Chinese students have embraced the America of free inquiry enjoyed by Albert Einstein and Jonas Salk. Others have worshiped the Goddess of Democracy, rejoicing in the America of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Abraham Lincoln.
Not Lu Gang. Haunted by jealousy and bitterness, he grasped for a different America--the America of revenge and violence, the America of guns. In Iowa, Lu Gang abandoned Confucius for Clint Eastwood.
“My favorite movies includes ‘No Way Out,’ ‘Die Hard,’ ‘Indiana Jones’ and Clint Eastwood’s movies, where a single cowboy fights against a group of incorporated bad guys who pick on little guys at their will or cover up each other’s ass,” he wrote in the letter that he left inside the black attache case in the seminar room where Goertz, Shan and Smith died.
Mao Tse-tung said that power comes out of the barrel of a gun. But Mao was no individualist. After six years in the United States, Lu Gang devised an ugly American adaptation of Mao’s thought--that equality comes out of the barrel of a gun.
“I believe in the rights of people to own firearms. . . .” he wrote. “Privately owned guns are the only practical way for individuals/minority to protect them(selves) against the oppression from the evil organizations/majority who actually control the government and legal system. Private guns makes every person equal, no matter what/who he/she is.”
HE WAS RAISED IN AN ORDINARY FAMILY, YET LU GANG BECAME ONE OF China’s best and brightest. Born in 1963, he grew up in Beijing in the residential compound of a military hospital, known in that Brand-X era only as Hospital No. 262. His mother was a doctor at the hospital clinic, his father a clerk for an auto-parts enterprise. He was their third child and only son. In those days, Mao was encouraging the Chinese to have as many babies, as many potential soldiers, as they could.
His sister Lu Huimin, who still lives in Beijing and was probably the person closest to him, recalls that he was a quiet, timid child. Once, while on a shopping trip, the Lu family saw a street fight among young toughs. When his parents stopped to watch, Lu Gang tugged on their sleeves, pulling them away, telling them it was better not to get involved.
At first, he didn’t seem very smart. At Xingang Primary School near the hospital, he was just an average student. Yet he liked to read, and during the Cultural Revolution, when most books other than Mao’s writings and the Marxist classics were banned, Lu Gang read the traditional books that ordinary Chinese quietly kept and passed along, furtively, from reader to reader. His family’s living space was so small that his sister remembers how, when her parents had guests, Lu Gang would go outside to a small vegetable shed, carrying a candle and a book.
By junior high school, Lu’s talent for math and physics surfaced. He was sent to a select school outside the neighborhood, where he won numerous academic awards and, eventually, admission to Beijing University, the most prestigious school in China. When he graduated, in 1985, he entered a new, government-sponsored program that placed China’s most promising physics students, the cream of the crop from the world’s largest nation, at U.S. universities.
His sister, who works in a Beijing tax office, recalls that when Lu Gang left for America, he was “very excited. . . . He was really getting what he wanted. He said, ‘Our family is just an ordinary family. We never had political power or money. So we have to be successful by our own efforts.’ ”
What Lu Gang wanted, it turned out, was money and recognition. Studying physics was just the means to those ends. Much later, Lu Gang would look back on it as his ticket out of China--but ultimately as a mistake.
“I regret a bit that at the outset I did not study a more practical subject,” he wrote in his last letter to Lu Huimin. “But what can be done about it now? Our parents themselves were ignorant of these things, and could not guide me in educational matters. I had to blunder on it all by myself.”
LOOK IN THE IOWA CITY PHONE BOOK, AND BETWEEN THE NAMES HRUBY AND Hubbard you will find one Hsiao, one Hsieh, one Hsiung, seven Hsus, three Hus and 14 Huangs.
Over the past decade, an entire Chinese community has grown up in Iowa City (population 60,000), as it has in virtually every other American university town. The University of Iowa has about 370 students from Taiwan and another 340 from the People’s Republic. About a quarter of the university’s 80-odd graduate students in physics come from the two Chinese jurisdictions, which rank well above South Korea and India as the top contributors to the foreign-student community.
Chinese students at Iowa can shop in Asian supermarkets such as Chong’s, which is stocked not only with Chinese rice, spices and canned foods but carries some of the latest videos from Hong Kong and Taiwan. They can eat at such restaurants as the China Garden, where Lu Gang was a regular, charging $5 dinners on his Visa card. And they can live in university housing along the Iowa River, where, early on a weekday morning, one can sometimes see Chinese students, or even their parents, practicing tai chi.
“This is a good place to concentrate,” says Qiu Yihong, a Chinese pharmaceutics student who lived in Iowa City for five years. “In places like Los Angeles and New York City, Chinese students spend half their time on their studies and half on trying to make money.” In Iowa City, the cost of living is cheap.
But there is a downside to Iowa, too. “In Los Angeles, you can work illegally, ' Qiu says. “In Iowa City, just to be a baby-sitter, they ask you for a work permit.” So, in order to pay the rent, Chinese students tend to fall back on their one legal option. Li Shaoling, head of the Chinese Students Assn. at the university, puts it simply: “You cannot make extra money here. You have to be a teaching assistant.”
Lu Gang became a graduate assistant in physics. Like others in the department, he earned about $12,000 for a nine-month academic year--or about $15,000 annually, when he worked over the summer. The stipend amounted to subsistence pay here, but back home, it would be a small fortune.
Lu, like many of his compatriots, was determined to accumulate as much cash as possible, even making the most of his small apartment. Five years ago, Chi Xuming, a graduate student in education, answered a brief notice in the Chinese Student Assn. newsletter that said, in Chinese, “Roommate Wanted, $160 rent.” The advertiser was Lu Gang, and Chi agreed to move in with him in a plain but cheap apartment on South Dubuque Street.
Just before the 1987-88 school year was to start, Lu confronted him with a surprise. Another Chinese student in physics had arrived at Iowa, a transfer student from Texas A&M; named Shan Linhua. Lu wanted to include the new student in the apartment, thus reducing the rent to under $110 apiece. Not only that, but Lu, who held the lease on the apartment, wanted his two roommates to share one room, and one double bed, while Lu took the other bedroom for himself. According to Chi, such selfishness was characteristic of Lu. Chi went along, although after two sleepless nights on the shared bed, he went to a Goodwill store and bought a mattress of his own that he dumped on the floor.
For that entire school year, the three lived together, Chi and the pair of physics students, the two young men who would become killer and victim. It was a difficult time. “We were sleeping only four or five hours a night. We were all doctoral students, and that’s hard,” recalls Chi. “Especially with the language problem, so that you’re always having to look things up in the dictionary.”
To Chi’s way of thinking, Lu Gang had no idea how to take care of himself. In Lu’s room, books, pencils and spare change were always on the floor. There were usually three or four pairs of dirty socks under his bed. When cockroaches began to appear in the apartment, Chi begged Lu to help clean up the dirty dishes, but somehow Lu never had time. The job was usually left to Chi or Shan.
Chi grew to like Shan, the newcomer. He felt that Shan, who came from a poor family in rural Zhejiang province on China’s eastern central coast, was kind and self-sacrificing. For several months, Shan lived only on bread and milk. When Chi urged him to eat some meat or vegetables, Shan confessed that he was cutting down on expenses to send money home. “He said, ‘My brother is getting married, and I can save enough money to buy him a house,’ ” Chi recalls.
By contrast, Lu left him cold. “He felt he was too smart,” says Chi. “He wanted to look down on other people, and he didn’t want anyone to look down on him. He perceived himself as the smartest guy in physics, he believed he should be No. 1 and that he should be worshiped. But no one worshiped him. He isolated himself. And he was short and unattractive.” Lu had an unattractive temper, too, Chi found. When he got angry, his face turned purple, and his eyes widened.
Like many other Chinese students, in Iowa and elsewhere in America, the threesome quickly attracted the attention of campus missionaries pursuing the century-old dream of saving the souls of China’s millions. On Saturdays, Baptist minister Tom Miller of the Campus Bible Fellowship would drive his van over to their apartment and offer the students--who at the time had no cars of their own--a ride to the low-budget grocery store. Afterward, he would bring them to Bible study. While attending the meeting wasn’t required, Miller acknowledges that the Chinese students felt “a sense of obligation” to come after accepting the ride.
Chi became a Christian, and eventually, say both Chi and Miller, so did Shan. But Lu, while he accepted the free transportation for groceries, showed no interest in religion. He challenged his roommates to tell him what God looked like.
“He never received Christ into his life, as did Shan,” observes Miller. Looking back now, Miller sees Shan and Lu as brothers and competitors, calling to mind a biblical story of sibling rivalry. “Cain killed his brother, he just got so mad at him,” says Miller. “And this is just a modern-day example of that.”
SITTING IN HIS SEVENTH-FLOOR LABORATORY CLUTTERED WITH BOOKS, charts and machines, Dr. James A. Van Allen, now 77, recalls a time when physics graduate students were so devoted to research that “if you got married, it was taken as a sign of a lack of interest in the subject.” In those days there were few, if any, Asians enrolled. Now, he finds, the Chinese students fill up the libraries, laboratories and lecture halls, displaying “the same kind of work ethic as American students had when I was growing up, and which isn’t so common now.”
Van Allen--a round-faced, raspy-voiced, easygoing man who was born in Iowa and educated at the university--is one of the most renowned men in the state. The physics building bears his name. More to the point, so do the Van Allen radiation belts--which, budding astronomers learn, are the bundles of charged particles that surround the Earth and against which astronauts must be specially protected. The belts were named in 1958 after Van Allen discovered them.
In the decades since then, under Van Allen’s leadership, Iowa’s physics department became one of the nation’s leaders in space physics and its sub-discipline, plasma physics, the study of ionized gases in the upper atmospheres, or “magnetospheres,” of planets and the sun.
In 1973, Van Allen helped persuade a 29-year-old German physics professor, Christoph K. Goertz, to move to Iowa from the South African university where he was teaching. The two worked closely on a number of projects, including the first explorations of the radiation belts of Jupiter and Saturn, with equipment installed on the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft. “He was a theorist, and I’m an experimentalist,” says Van Allen. “Most theorists are sort of floating out there, and I lack the ability to communicate with them. But Chris was a notable exception.” Goertz became not only a star faculty member, but editor of one of the nation’s top publications on space research, the Journal of Geophysical Research-Space Physics.
Van Allen retired from teaching in 1985. And so it was to Goertz, his close collaborator and the department’s top researcher, that Lu Gang and Shan Linhua first attached themselves at Iowa. They, too, were young stars. When Lu Gang took the qualifying exam for Iowa’s Ph.D. program in physics, Van Allen recalls, he got the highest score at the university. And when Lu took his comprehensive exams a couple of years later, he ranked among the top two or three.
In the summer of 1987, Goertz traveled to Paris for an international conference on space physics and took Lu Gang with him. The student seized the opportunity to travel around Europe. His photo albums show pictures of him in London, Marseille, Madrid, Barcelona, Geneva. “He was very lucky,” says Goertz’s widow, Ulrike, who lives in an airy brown house a few blocks from campus. “Not everyone takes their students along for a trip overseas.”
However, there may have been some friction on the trip. One Chinese physics student at Iowa says Lu later complained that Goertz exploited his students, working them too hard. In particular, Lu said, Goertz had accused him of “spending the whole time playing” in Europe.
If so, Goertz did not tell Ulrike, to whom he would later confide some of his other problems with Lu. “All he said was that he was amazed at Lu Gang’s inquisitiveness--that he wanted to see the West so much,” she says.
IF THE CENSUS BUREAU EVER GOES OUT LOOKING FOR THE PSYCHIC MIDPOINT of the American male population, it might wind up at the Sports Column, a watering hole just off the University of Iowa campus.
The Sports Column features a dozen television sets over the bar (all tuned to ESPN), a practice basketball net and three pool tables. There are banners of sports teams (particularly Chicago’s: the Cubs, White Sox and Bears), girls still trying to imitate Farrah Fawcett and beer that sells for 75 cents a draft. On Thursday nights, when the weekend juices begin to flow and the jukebox blares John Mellencamp, the Sports Column offers Hula-Hoop tournaments and limbo contests.
The bar became, in effect, the setting for Lu Gang’s transition to American life. “My favorite public place in Iowa City is the ‘Sports Column,’ where I have been around for about five years,” he wrote in one of the letters he left for the newspapers. “I made lots of friends and inevitably some jealous enemies there. They have the prettiest girls in town.” Lu’s car, a gray-blue 1985 Chrysler Laser, carried a single bumper sticker: “I’d rather party at the Sports Column.”
By late 1987, two years after Lu Gang arrived in the United States, there were some clear indications he was unhappy with physics and desperate to change his life. Margaret Brooke, a pleasant woman who works in the university’s office of international education, recalls that about that time, Lu came to her asking to switch his field to business. Brooke told him that would be difficult unless Lu could find a way to replace his teaching assistant’s income. But the business school, which doesn’t have the physics department’s need for research aides, turned down Lu’s request for a stipend or a teaching job, and the idea fell through. Lu’s files show that in November, the university’s department of electrical and computer engineering also rejected his request for a transfer.
He was trying to date women, particularly Americans, and apparently wasn’t above paying for sex. “When some new Chinese student arrived and asked about girls, Lu said, ‘I know someone, you can just pay her $50,’ ” recalls Chi, his former roommate. “He seemed to know the whole underground scene, prostitution and so forth. One vacation, he went on a trip to Las Vegas, and when he came back and was showing the pictures, there was one with a showgirl on his lap, and Lu Gang was talking about the price, $70 or $90.”
Lu claimed in his letters that he had met some girls at the Sports Column. He also placed at least one personal ad in the Daily Iowan, the campus newspaper, attracting a couple of tentative, inquisitive responses. “We are two beautiful women who are wondering why you must go to such lengths just to find someone to ‘share good times and quiet moments with’ ” says a letter in his files. “What are your goals, and what the hell do you look like?”
Later, in his last letter to his sister, Lu wrote, “Though I am single, I have had a few girlfriends . . . After I came to the States, I had liaisons with Chinese and American women, with single and married women, with girls of good families and girls of the streets.”
But these words may well have been a bit of braggadocio and a lot of fantasy. Despite all of Lu’s efforts, no one recalls seeing him--a short, plain, bespectacled man--with a regular girlfriend. Chi says Lu never brought a woman home to their apartment. On the night after passing his comprehensive exams, a graduate-school milestone, Lu Gang celebrated not with a girlfriend, but with fantasy. He saw his first American movie, the story of an unmarried couple: “About Last Night,” starring Demi Moore and Rob Lowe.
Lu grew increasingly remote from his family in Beijing. He was entitled to one free trip home and had planned to go back in the summer of 1987. But he held off after Goertz invited him to Paris. He again intended to go home in 1989, but had to cancel once more because of the upheaval in Tian An Men Square. After the pro-democracy demonstrations started, other Chinese students say, Lu’s parents urged him not to come home to the tumult.
Feng Wei, another Chinese physics student, recalls that when he was home in Beijing one summer, Lu’s brother-in-law brought over a suitcase of Chinese herbs and snacks for delivery to Lu, then pumped Feng for information about why they were losing contact with him. Indeed, after a few years, his parents appeared almost desperate. Zheng Feng, a high-school classmate from Beijing, wrote Lu in April, 1991: “Your father urged me to contact you . . . (He) called me, telling me that from Spring Festival (in January) until now, you have never written a single word to your family, and your mother was worried about you.”
About the same time that his family was wondering what had become of him, Lu was having new problems with physics, with his thesis adviser, Goertz, and with Shan.
Shan and Lu were working simultaneously on doctorates for Goertz. And while Lu was good in physics, Shan was better. Feng Wei took a course in general relativity with the two of them and reports that Shan got one of only two A’s in the class of 30. Lu got an A-minus. “Shan worked much harder than Lu Gang,” says another Chinese physics student who knew both of them. “He was genuinely interested in physics. But Lu Gang was not that interested.”
For his dissertation, Lu chose to do research with Goertz on the “critical ionization velocity phenomenon"--how certain gases in space behave when electrically charged. Shan’s Ph.D. thesis was on the rings of Saturn. By all accounts, Shan’s work was a stunning success, and Lu’s was not.
“Lu didn’t seem to have the talent for seeing what the trick was in these research problems,” says Dr. John Lyon, a physicist working in the plasma physics group headed by Goertz. Unlike Shan’s, Lu’s thesis didn’t break new ground and lacked the same degree of relevance, according to Lyon. “If you don’t have that talent, even if you do course work very well, you’re at a disadvantage for research.”
Some Chinese students say that Goertz was particularly tough with his students, openly criticizing them. Lu complained regularly that Goertz was exploiting his grad students, working them too hard, insisting that they do long hours of research at low pay. “Both Lu and Shan had pressure from Chris Goertz,” says Wu Li. “If the boss had been nice to both of them, they would have had a more relaxed relationship. As it was, whenever the two of them came together, you could tell they were competing very much.”
Despite the difficulties, Lu seemed to keep his hopes up until last year. He finished his doctoral thesis and began applying for jobs. Then, in April, he went in for oral exams on his thesis, before a commitment composed of members of the department, and bombed out. Lu had particular trouble with the questions from the department chairman, Dwight Nicholson. Lu later admitted that he was “exposed brutally to both personal humiliation and emotional anguish” at his thesis defense. He blamed Goertz for failing to tell him beforehand what he was expected to do.
That evening, Ulrike Goertz remembers, her husband came home upset. “Lu Gang made a fool of himself,” he told her. Goertz was also angry at his friend and colleague, Nicholson, for hammering away and making Lu look bad. “Lu Gang did not defend himself well, but you should not humiliate a student like Dwight Nicholson did,” he said. Lu was required to make some quick modifications to his thesis. But in one respect at least, the damage was done.
Each year, the University of Iowa gives out the D.C. Spriestersbach Dissertation Prize, a cash award of $2,500 for an outstanding doctoral thesis. The prize rotates among various disciplines, and in 1991 it was to go a student in the natural sciences. The physics department had been asked to submit recommendations. According to Ulrike Goertz, Nicholson, as chairman, had originally asked if he could submit two names, Shan and Lu. But in late April, after sitting through Lu’s troubled defense of his dissertation, Nicholson decided--on his own, Ulrike Goertz says--to submit a single name, Shan.
Lu found out about the decision on April 26, apparently when he came upon a memo Nicholson wrote congratulating Shan on his nomination for the prize. That afternoon, Lu told Goertz he was “very upset” about the decision. Lu was still revising his own thesis, which would be finished in only a couple of days, yet Nicholson had already nominated Shan’s dissertation. Shan won the award. Goertz didn’t think the award mattered much. “It’s not very important for (Lu’s) future,” he told his wife. Other Iowa physicists agreed. “That prize isn’t even important in this department,” says Gerald Payne, now the acting department chairman. “And no one outside this university would even know what the award is.” Besides, Goertz told Ulrike, Shan deserved the award more. He had spent more time at Van Allen Hall, making better use of Goertz’s supervision, and the thesis reflected the fact.
Still, Lu was furious. He decided to fight back, but in ways more familiar to America than to China. He turned to legal appeals--and to guns.
EVERY WORKDAY, JOHNSON COUNTY Sheriff Robert Carpenter issues from five to 20 gun permits to Iowans who come into his modern, red-brick building on Capital Street. All you have to do is walk up to the window next to the FBI’s Most Wanted posters with $5 and a driver’s license, fill out an application and wait three days while Carpenter’s office does a background check with your local police department and the National Crime Information Center to make sure you have no criminal record.
Until Lu Gang strolled in and filled out his application on May 21, 1991, however, Carpenter had never issue a gun permit to any of the University of Iowa’s Chinese students--or, for that matter, to anyone who was not a U.S. citizen. When Lu Gang turned in the forms, Carpenter balked. “I wasn’t sure the (Iowa gun) law pertained to non-citizens,” he says. “I didn’t feel comfortable, because I wasn’t able to do the usual background checks. I wasn’t able to look into his criminal history in his homeland.”
Carpenter had his staff call authorities in Des Moines to see if he could deny the permit. He was told he couldn’t. “They said that even though he was not a citizen, he was eligible like anyone else, so long as he met the residency requirements,” says Carpenter.
On May 24, Carpenter gave Lu the permit. Five days later, Lu bought a .25-caliber handgun, charging it for $101.87 on his Visa card. He practiced his marksmanship at a shooting range; investigators would later find National Rifle Assn. pistol targets in his car. On July 28, Lu went to the Fin and Feather, a local sporting-good store, and traded his first gun for a more powerful Taurus .38. The price was $179.99.
Late that spring, Lu was awarded his doctorate. But his job search was going nowhere. Lu’s files show that he wrote to at least 40 to 50 universities without success. His mail produced rejection after rejection. “We received more than 500 applications for the two positions we had available,” wrote California State University, Los Angeles, in one typical letter. “We are sorry to inform you that you were not one of the people selected.”
Perhaps it was not Lu’s fault. In a different year, he would probably have found something. “Jobs in this country in physics are getting harder and harder to get, and now we have good Russian scientists wanting to come here, too,” says Payne. Physicists say the U.S. government’s investment in space research is barely keeping up with inflation, and the universities aren’t expanding their teaching positions in physics.
In better economic times, too, the Iowa physics department would have kept Lu on as postdoctoral fellow. But with grants and other research money drying up, Goertz had been forced to deny Lu continued financial support. “His contracts had been very tight,” Goertz’s widow, Ulrike, says. “My husband was running out of (research) money. It was coming again in November.” Goertz “promised in May that he would support my work here,” Lu wrote in his letter to the media. “However, I haven’t seen any paycheck since then, while I have been working here for months after my graduation.”
While applying for jobs, Lu also wrote a series of letters, grievances and appeals to University of Iowa administrators. He argued repeatedly hat he had been unfairly denied the Spriestersbach prize because Nicholson had selected Shan before the deadline. One of these letters went to Cleary, whom Lu eventually killed. The university has kept the details of this correspondence secret.
Unlike Goertz, who has seen the letters, says at first they seemed to be reasonable requests to have the process for awarding the prize reviewed. But Van Allen said that Lu eventually “twisted his protest into a totally irrational claim of racial discrimination.” And Lu also came to believe that university officials were engaged in a cover-up and were conspiring against him.
“The department/college/university authorities have been in a conspiracy to isolate me, delay my complaint so I might be forced to leave here and they could claim the case dismissed because of the absence of the plaintiff,” Lu wrote the last day of his life.
LAST SEPTEMBER, LU PAID ANOTHER visit to Margaret Brooke at the University’s office of international education. He was tense, shifting nervously in his chair, answering her questions in monosyllables, refusing to take off his khaki coat. “I have to have permission to work,” he told her. Under his visa agreement, he was entitled to work only in the field of physics, but he wanted to find something else. Brooke asked him if he couldn’t find a job in physics at the university or nearby. “No,” Lu mumbled.
Brooke addressed him as Dr. Lu. He waved his hand. “Don’t call me that,” he said. “It (his Ph.D) is not worth anything.” He left empty-handed.
H By then, Lu was clearly in despair. He showed up occasionally at Van Allen Hall for the Friday afternoon seminar and other aspects of academic life in Iowa’s physics department. But he also spent time sitting at home watching soap operas. So great was his bitterness toward the physics department that when he got a routine solicitation for a financial contribution, Lu, rather than ignoring it, sent his old department a check for one penny.
He was finishing up his life.
There was time for one last fling. Lu Gang wanted to see Disney World. His credit-card records show that on Sept. 18, when students were just getting into the new school year, Lu bought a $199 Greyhound ticket. Two days later, he ate dinner at a Chinese in Key West, Fla. Over the next few days, he visited Sea World in Orlando, took pictures of the parade at Disney World and ran up charges at the New Orleans Aquarium. He returned to Iowa within a week.
His complaints about being denied the Spriestersbach award were going nowhere. Lu had even written to Rawlings, the university president, and to the Des Moines Register, the state’s leading newspaper, but without any impact.
University officials were still trying to figure out how to handle his complaint. In mid-October, Nicholson told Goertz about Lu’s angry appeals. “My husband came home, looking very distraught, and he said Lu Gang had gone to university officials complaining about Dwight Nicholson,” recalls Ulrike Goertz. The next day, Goertz tried to talk to Lu, explaining that the dissertation prize was not a big deal, and that anyway, Shan had done better with a riskier topic. “Did he understand?” his wife asked him afterward. “I don’t know,” Goertz sighed.
Lu didn’t understand. He claimed in one of his final letters that after Goertz heard about his series of complaints to university officials, the professor warned him. “If you continue, it will backfire.” If Goertz said this, he most likely meant that the grievances against the university might affect Lu’s job prospects. But Lu maintained that this was an attempt at a cover-up and that it demonstrated the existence of a conspiracy against him. “Since then, I have sworn to myself that I would revenge at any cost,” he wrote.
Early in October, Lu began withdrawing his savings from his bank accounts. He bought a $10,000 money order and mailed it home to his sister Lu Huimin. She was stunned. It was, for a resident of China, a huge amount of money. A couple of weeks later, he did it again, sending another $10,000 check back to his sister with a short note that said, simply and ominously, “When you get the check, deposit it in the bank. Whatever may happen to me, you may know in the future.”
Lu’s sister received the second check in Beijing on Oct. 28. Three days later, troubled by his note, she called Lu Gang in Iowa to ask how he was doing. “He said the security in the United States is not very good,” recalls Lu Huimin. “It occurred to me that something might happen to him, so I asked him, ‘Do you feel well?’ He told me, ‘I’m okay, but I’ve been honest and frank for my whole life, and I’ve suffered for being that sort of person. People take advantage of me, and I feel very bad about it.’ ”
Lu Gang asked about his parents and about his sister’s child. He never mentioned his problems with the physics department. And, Lu Huimin says, “He never let me know a trace of what he was about to do.”
In the last hours of his life, Lu Gang cleaned out the remainder of his savings, $4,793.01 from one bank account and $520 from another, and put it into checks that could be mailed to China. He also packaged his clothes, a camera, tape recorder, binoculars and hair dryer. He put these together with a final letter to his sister. “Last night, when I finished talking to you on the telephone, I wept my heart out here alone,” he wrote. “For the life of me, I can’t swallow all this.”
Early in the afternoon of Nov. 1, Lu Gang stopped at the Iowa City post office to send off these final shipments. Shortly afterward, a fellow student, Wang Jingen, saw him in Van Allen Hall, standing in front of the second floor physics department office, wearing a long coat, carrying a briefcase and staring ta the notices posted on the bulletin board. Wang said hello, and Lu calmly replied in Chinese, “Ni hao"-- hello.
As the time for the 3:30 graduate seminar approached, Lu Gang walked into Room 309. He put the briefcase on the floor and sat down.
Inside, Lu’s letter contained his last words to the world:
“I am being a physicist who believes in the conservation of matter, energy, momentum, etc,” he wrote in English. “Although my flesh/blood-made body seems dead, my spiritual soul remains perpetual, and I am being quantum leaping to another corner of our world. I have finished what I am supposed to do here, which is to make right what was once wrong . . . So long, my friends, maybe we will meet again in another time at another place.”
* Wu Li is a pseudonym.