It started as a typical evening for Ming Qu and Ying Wu, two graduate students from China studying electrical engineering at USC.
After a night at the library, Qu drove Wu to the house where she was renting a room less than a mile from campus. He double parked in front of the home early Wednesday morning to continue talking.
At around 1 a.m., a gunman approach Qu’s BMW and opened fire, killing both students in an attack that shocked USC and rekindled long-held concerns about safety around the university.
Qu attempted to run for help after he was shot in the head and was found collapsed on a nearby porch, police said. Wu was found shot in the chest, slumped over in the passenger seat of the car parked on a tree-lined stretch of Raymond Avenue just south of Adams Boulevard.
The students, both 23, were close friends who spent evenings chatting on the front porch of the house where Wu lived, according to police sources, who requested anonymity because the investigation is ongoing. But on Wednesday, it was raining, so police believe the pair decided to stay in the car, which friends said was a 2003 model that Qu bought for about $10,000.
Police suspect a lone assailant of carrying out the killings, but LAPD Capt. Andrew Smith said investigators had little to go on and are examining all motives, including that the gunman was trying to rob the pair. More than a dozen Los Angeles Police Department homicide detectives canvassed the area Wednesday, going door-to-door to search for witnesses and reviewing intersection cameras for clues.
USC, south of downtown Los Angeles, has long dealt with worries about crime in the neighborhoods around the campus. But in recent years, some of those concerns have eased as crime plummeted, the university expanded and some of those neighborhoods, such as West Adams, gentrified.
Critics have faulted the university for not building enough dorms for the growing number of students from other states and countries. USC has more foreign students enrolled than any other college or university in the United States, according to a recent study.
With cheaper rents and close proximity to the campus, the area where the killings took place has seen a marked increase in the number of students renting apartments in recent years. Authorities said the influx has centered around neighborhoods to the west and north of USC, particularly in the area bounded by Exposition and Adams boulevards and Vermont and Normandie avenues.
“There are so many students that have integrated into the neighborhood that it’s not unusual to see students riding bikes or walking to and from school, at all times of day and night,” LAPD Deputy Chief Patrick Gannon said.
Even with the double slaying, LAPD officials said violent crime and homicides were down 20% this year through the first week of April compared with the same period last year. Before Wednesday’s shooting, there had been only four homicides in the LAPD’s Southwest Division since Jan. 1 -- far lower than in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when there were more than 100 homicides annually in the division.
The Adams-Normandie corridor where the shooting occurred is a mix of USC students and working-class residents living alongside each other in large wood-framed houses and apartment complexes. Locals said the neighborhood once experienced a lot of gang activity, which had slowed over the last decade as students moved in.
“In the last 10 years, we’ve definitely seen the neighborhood get better and quieter,” said Julie Burleigh, who for a decade has lived on the block where the shooting took place.
Still, isolated crimes targeting students off campus have made headlines and unnerved some students. In 2008, a 19-year-old star sprinter was shot and wounded while walking at night near campus. The same year, a film student was fatally stabbed in a fight after he slammed an apartment complex gate near the university. Last year, two USC students were shot and wounded when several students confronted a stranger who appeared to be stealing items during a party at a nearby apartment complex.
In a statement released hours after Wednesday’s killings, the university reassured students and employees that it was making strides to improve safety around the campus.
“Our community is saddened and outraged by this callous and meaningless act,” the statement said. “Tragedies such as this morning’s remind us that we all need to be continuously vigilant about safety and security.”
The university’s Department of Public Safety continuously patrols many areas near the campus and has hired “security ambassadors,” who wear yellow jackets, to rove in additional areas west of campus. The school has installed security cameras in the neighborhood where the killings took place but does not patrol the area around the clock.
“There’s always going to be a point to the limit of our resources. And quite frankly, the violent crime in that area is quite low,” said Capt. David Carlisle of the school’s Department of Public Safety.
The shooting comes as prospective students are weighing whether to accept offers from USC.
Hours after the shooting, groups of touring high school students swarmed the campus, carrying cameras and gold folders that said, “Come here ... go anywhere.” Among them was Jesslyn Giese, a junior at Fountain Valley High, who got a text message from her boyfriend begging her to be careful.
“You think, I want to go here, but there’s that one thing -- it’s a really good school in a really bad area,” she said.
Her friend, Madison Gioia, 16, said no one mentioned the tragedy on their 31/2-hour tour, but her father texted with news of the shooting. Madison is also looking into UC Davis. Her mother didn’t rule out USC but said she’d feel better if her daughter lived on campus.
“We’d take precautions if she went here,” Lori Gioia said. “She’d take a self-defense class before coming.”
Chinese students make up about one-third of the school’s 7,200 international students. Mingxin Liu, of Hunan province, said he and his fellow electrical engineering students form a close-knit circle that includes about 100 Chinese students.
“When I got here, there were way more crime alerts than I imagined,” the 23-year-old said. “I will definitely tell my friends to consider that if they’re thinking of applying or coming here.”
Times staff writers Sam Quinones, Matt Stevens, Jack Leonard and Larry Gordon contributed to this report.