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3 on San Diego State Faculty Fatally Shot

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A student apparently distraught about the poor evaluation he had received on his master’s thesis walked into the Engineering Building at San Diego State University on Thursday afternoon and shot three faculty members to death before surrendering to police, authorities said.

Police said the three men slain were members of a thesis defense committee that had been evaluating the work of candidates for graduate degrees in engineering.

The suspect, who was booked on three counts of murder, was identified by police as Frederick Martin Davidson, 36, an engineering student who lives in East San Diego.

Police identified the victims as: Chen Liang, 32, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering; D. Preston Lowery III, 44, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, and Constantinos Lyrintzis, 36, an associate professor of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics.

Investigators said Davidson entered the concrete-and-glass building on the bucolic hillside campus overlooking Mission Valley shortly before 2 p.m. and climbed the stairs to the second floor.

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Davidson reportedly then walked into a laboratory classroom where the three faculty members had scheduled a 2 p.m. meeting to hear his rebuttal to their evaluation, which he had received earlier. At about 2:05 p.m., sounds of gunfire echoed through the building.

“At the beginning of the presentation, Davidson produced a 9-millimeter handgun and began firing at panel members,” said Sgt. Rod Vandiver. “He fired more than 20 rounds, reloading once.”

Three students were at the presentation to observe the thesis defense, Vandiver said. “The students were not injured,” Vandiver said. “Davidson apparently did not intend to injure them.”

The three victims died of gunshots to the chest, police said. At least one shot went wild, ricocheting out a window, but no one else was hit.

The gunfire prompted shouts of alarm as students scurried for cover, witnesses said.

Richard Haslim, a maintenance worker at the university, said he heard “a loud noise, like banging . . . and it kept going on.”

Campus police raced to the building, where they confronted the gunman, still armed with a pistol.

The command was repeated three times: “Drop your weapon!” Officers said Davidson complied, and was taken into custody without further incident. The handgun used in the attack was recovered, detectives said.

A few minutes later, the sobbing suspect was led handcuffed to a police car and driven away.

Charles Brashear, 65, who shares a three-bedroom house with Davidson and a third roommate in a tree-lined neighborhood near the campus, said police searched the home shortly after Davidson’s arrest.

“He was neat and clean,” Brashear said. “He was a little touchy about his things . . . He seemed to devote himself entirely to his job.”

Co-workers say Davidson has been employed by a San Diego-area optical company while pursuing a master’s degree in engineering.

Brashear said Davidson’s studies have included work with an engineering professor at San Diego State to develop metal alloys. Brashear said Davidson told him the professor had received an aerospace industry grant to continue the research.

Davidson earned a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering several years ago, but was unable to find a job when the defense industry underwent downsizing, Brashear said. Davidson then switched to mechanical engineering in the belief that it would offer more job possibilities, the roommate said.

Brashear said Davidson, an Army veteran, once went to the desert to test a pistol made by a friend. However, Brashear said he did not know if Davidson owned a gun.

Brashear said that when he last saw Davidson Thursday morning, Davidson did not appear upset. Brashear said Davidson left the house about 8:15 a.m., presumably headed for the campus and his scheduled meeting in the engineering department.

Undergraduate student Alex Williamson described the engineering department as a place where “everybody works together.”

“Something like this is horrible,” Williamson said. “We’re a small group and everybody feels this.”

Graduate student Jon Lovegren said: “There’s always a lot of pressure in engineering to do it right, to do it best. But problems in a project are not the end of the world. It’s just the beginning of a process.”

Lovegren said he and others were working in another office, one floor below where the shooting took place, when “one of our professors came in and said a guy had shot some other professors and we’d better run for it because he still had a gun. Everybody bailed out and ran for their lives.”

Bruce Keitel, an English teacher, said someone entered his classroom and told all the students to evacuate immediately.

Within minutes, Keitel said, parents were calling to inquire about the safety of their children.

“This could have a devastating impact on the campus and make parents afraid to let their children come here,” he said. “I can only imagine that faculty members will be second-guessing themselves about how demanding to be, or how much stress we put on students.

“There are hundreds of thesis defenses, and most are civil and proper,” Keitel said. “It only takes one incident like this to upset a whole university community.”

Police said the incident occurred about 10 miles from where Bob Dole was preparing to receive the Republican presidential nomination. The attack had no apparent connection with the political convention, investigators said.

San Diego State, with mission-style architecture and an enrollment of about 35,000 students, is one of the oldest and largest campuses in the state university system. The campus is spread over 300 acres on a hilltop known as Montezuma Mesa near Interstate 8 in East San Diego.

Times staff writers Bettina Boxall and Miles Corwin in Los Angeles and Ann-Marie O’Connor and Elizabeth Shogren in San Diego contributed to this story.


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