Ivy League Student Killed Near UC Berkeley

Times Staff Writer

Berkeley police searched for clues Sunday in the shooting death of a promising Ivy League student across the street from a UC Berkeley dormitory that is near an apartment she had sublet for the summer.

The early Sunday morning killing of Meleia Willis-Starbuck, 19, which occurred near the south side of the UC Berkeley campus, sent shock waves through the university and the community.

Willis-Starbuck had attended Berkeley High School and returned to the city for the summer to participate in an internship and to see old friends, according to a former classmate.

Police said in a statement that Willis-Starbuck had been walking with some girlfriends outside her apartment on College Avenue at 1:46 a.m. when they got into a brief argument with another group. The dispute appeared to have ended without incident, police said.


But then a car drove up, stopped and a man in his 20s who was described as black, thin, wearing jeans and a white T-shirt, got out, drew a gun and fired multiple shots in the direction of Willis-Starbuck and her girlfriends, police said. At least one bullet hit Willis-Starbuck, whom police said died at the scene. No one else was hit.

An autopsy likely will be performed today, police said.

The death of the civic-minded Willis-Starbuck, who was a rising junior on a scholarship at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, was particularly jarring.

Though her parents had moved to Atlanta, Willis-Starbuck had gotten the internship at the Women’s Daytime Drop-In Center and arranged grants to finance it so she could spend the summer with her high school friends, said Stephanie De Souza, 20, a Berkeley High classmate who had been with her just minutes before the shooting.


De Souza said Willis-Starbuck had just returned from a party in Oakland when they ran into each other. De Souza was returning from a dance at the UC Berkeley dorm for the Summer Bridge program, which helps at-risk students prepare for college.

De Souza said they were talking on the street when a few of De Souza’s male friends from UC Berkeley approached and some sarcastic comments and insults were traded briefly. The men apologized and left to walk to their cars. Soon after De Souza had walked away to a friend’s dorm, she heard the noises that she later learned were the shots that killed her friend.

“The shooting had nothing to do with” the argument, she said.

De Souza said nobody, “not a single person,” would have disliked her. “She’s just like a magnet -- a really outgoing, really funny girl. She was really, really adored, by guys and girls alike.”

Dozens of friends and acquaintances of Willis-Starbuck placed flowers and candles outside the apartment building where she died. On posters, they displayed pictures taken at a June baby shower that Willis-Starbuck had held for her friend Mercedes Hong, who had asked Willis-Starbuck to be godmother of her baby girl due in August.

Willis-Starbuck was double-majoring in sociology and African American studies at Dartmouth. In high school, she had volunteered at a shelter for the homeless and worked at a center for disadvantaged youths, according to a profile on Dartmouth’s website. She also had been the president of the Black Student Union at Berkeley High.

In her internship application, Willis-Starbuck wrote about the need for domestic aid. She said “it is important to remember that there are so many people that are in need of basic resources in our own communities. Whether it is education, health, shelter, etc., that is lacking, Americans must be ready and willing to aid these citizens.”

The neighborhood where the shooting occurred at College Avenue and Dwight Way is composed largely of residences for students and those affiliated with the university. Although the area has its share of burglaries, robberies and car break-ins, shootings are highly unusual, said police spokesman Joe Okies. “It’s rare for homicides to happen in Berkeley, and even more rare to happen in that area,” he said.


The one other homicide in the city this year occurred on the other side of town, where a homeless woman was beaten to death. Two suspects have been arrested in that case.