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Former UCLA lecturer in custody threatened to kill female professor, May court filing says

Two people walk through a nearly empty UCLA campus
Two people walk through a nearly empty campus after UCLA canceled in-person classes Tuesday.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

A former UCLA lecturer taken into custody Tuesday by Colorado police after allegedly sending campus members a video referencing a mass shooting had threatened to hunt down and kill a University of California professor last year and was subsequently barred from going near her, according to court documents.

Matthew Harris, who was let go by UCLA last year following widespread complaints about his behavior as a postdoctoral fellow in philosophy, emailed his mother twice in January 2021 that he planned to shoot the professor with an MP5 submachine gun “for giving me schizophrenia,” the Los Angeles County Superior Court documents said. His mother warned the professor in April, sharing the emails that were forwarded to UCLA, according to court documents.

The UC system sought a workplace restraining order in May to bar Harris from going near the professor, sending her emails, leaving voicemails or entering any UC campus. In the court filing, a UCLA attorney noted that Harris had “steadily escalated from reported incidents of conduct with students involving graphic materials of a sexual and violent nature which resulting in him being placed on investigatory leave ... to now outright death threats to petitioner’s employee.”

In June, L.A. Superior Court Judge David Swift issued a three-year restraining order against Harris.

Harris was taken into custody peacefully at 11:07 a.m. after a three-hour-long barricade at his apartment, Boulder police said. Officials said he’d written a manifesto that contained references to Boulder “in a university and schoolyard setting.”

“The level of violence we saw in the manifesto was obviously alarming,” said Boulder Police Chief Maris Herold. “It was very violent and it was very disturbing.”

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Former lecturer Matthew Harris was found in Colorado after making threats, authorities said. His motives, and UCLA’s response, are not yet clear.

Boulder police made contact with Harris in October but did not say more about the incident.

Prosecutors and police were in “close communication” with federal prosecutors and the FBI since early Tuesday, according to the Boulder County district attorney’s office.

Federal charges against Harris are pending, county prosecutors said.

“As a result, he is now being transferred to federal custody,” the district attorney’s office said.

Law enforcement sources said Harris was likely to face threats and weapons charges.

Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore said Tuesday that he believes the UCLA campus is safe.

Matthew Harris’ neighbors in Boulder, like UCLA students, criticized authorities for not informing them more promptly of the threat he may have posed.

In a campus message Tuesday, UCLA officials told students they were “greatly relieved” that Harris was in custody and offered campus counseling for anyone needing it.

“The threats made yesterday were frightening for many of us and caused our community to feel vulnerable at an already challenging time,” said Suzanne L. Seplow, assistant vice chancellor for student development and health, and Michael Deluca, assistant vice chancellor for campus life.

Several students, however, complained that UCLA was too slow in alerting the campus about the threats and announcing that classes would shift online for safety.

Sherrilyn Roush, philosophy department chair, sent an alert to department members at 3:27 p.m. Monday that Harris had begun contacting UCLA with threatening emails and YouTube videos and said campus police and behavioral specialists were “investigating with urgency.”

By 6:30 p.m., someone posted on Reddit a subsequent department alert recommending that professors hold classes remotely as the material included a video titled “UCLA Philosophy Mass Shooting” and an “800-page manifesto with specific threats toward some members of the department.” Several emails from philosophy department leaders and multiple instructors obtained by The Times on Monday night alerted students that in-person classes would not be held.

UCLA tweeted its first campus-wide message at 9:25 p.m. saying that UCLA police were aware of a “concerning email and posting” sent to some Bruins. Police were engaged with out-of-state law enforcement and would keep the community informed, the tweet said.

That created an instant backlash on Twitter. “What @UCLA and @UCPDLA are failing to inform students and staff of is that this “concerning email” is a major mass shooter threat at UCLA,” one person tweeted.

It was not until 11:57 p.m. that UCLA tweeted that all classes would be held remotely “out of an abundance of caution.” Campus police were “actively working with out-of-state & federal agencies,” the tweet said. At the time UCLA did not release information about the location of the person of interest.

Asked about the delay in notifications, a UCLA spokesman pointed to the statement Tuesday by administrators Seplow and Deluca thanking campus police and other law enforcement for “thoroughly investigating these threats as soon as we learned of them and for coordinating to locate and arrest the individual in Colorado.”

But Lizette Garcia, a 22-year-old sociology student, said she was “speechless” that the notification of remote classes came so late and failed to mention the mass shooting threat that had been circulating for hours on social media. She was in a Zoom class Monday evening when her phone started blowing up with messages about Harris and his threats on a GroupMe chat with her classmates. For the rest of the evening, Garcia stayed glued to her phone, scouring Reddit threads, Twitter and GroupMe chats for details about what was happening. She checked her email repeatedly, waiting to hear from UCLA officials and her professors about it.

In the middle of midterms season, Garcia put all her homework and studying aside, unable to focus. The Orange County resident said she didn’t want to go to bed without knowing whether classes would be held remotely and criticized the late notification as “pretty unprofessional.”

Jorge Cruz, a doctoral student in Chicano studies, also found out about the threats through a WhatsApp group chat, a teacher’s assistant and the Daily Bruin student newspaper before any official university notice. But he didn’t fault UCLA.

“I don’t blame the university,” said Cruz, 29. “On the back end, they were probably trying to verify all the facts. I think they handled it the best way they could.”

Moore said the LAPD became aware Monday night of “online media posts involving YouTube videos and a manifesto” from a former UCLA lecturer, indicating that he was “potentially planning for a mass violence or shooting event at UCLA.”

The chief said that the department’s mental evaluation unit had previous contact with the individual in the spring of 2021 and that the department took the online threats seriously.

In the January 2021 emails Harris sent his mother, he compared himself to the shooter who massacred 26 people, most of them children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012 and Christopher Dorner, a former LAPD officer who killed four people and wounded three others in a series of Southern California shootings in 2013.

The UC professor he threatened to shoot first met Harris at another university in 2013. Harris reached out to her again for career advice in September 2020 but after increasingly aggressive emails, the professor began to fear for her safety and asked him to stop contacting her in March, according to court documents.

Harris’ mother forwarded the professor the violent emails in April, saying she “felt physically ill reading them.” The mother also wrote: “I’m sorry to drop all this on you out of the blue, I only know I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I did nothing and someone got hurt,” the court documents said.

In May, a Los Angeles judge granted a restraining order that forbids Harris from possessing firearms, a separate order from the one involving workplace violence. The court order noted that he threatened to murder a former colleague with an MP5 submachine gun and had referenced past active shooters.

That order placed Harris in a national database of those not allowed to purchase or possess a firearm, triggering denial of his attempt to buy a firearm in Colorado in November.

On Sunday, Harris sent an email just before 1 a.m. to his former students, replete with racist slurs against Jewish and East Asian people. Administrative Vice Chancellor Michael Beck confirmed in an Instagram video Monday night that UCLA staff members were aware that Harris had messaged students.

According to an email sent to members of the psychology department and obtained by The Times, UCLA police told a member of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology that “at this time we’re not concerned about anything happening.”

Harris’ YouTube channel contained more than 300 videos, the majority of which were uploaded Monday. By midnight, the channel displayed a message saying that the account had been terminated.

A video titled “UCLA PHILOSOPHY (MASS SHOOTING)” was posted Sunday and contained disturbing imagery, including footage of the 2017 mass shooting at a Las Vegas music festival and clips from the 2003 movie “Zero Day,” which is loosely based on the Columbine High School mass shooting.

In several videos, Harris makes racist comments. He also cryptically names specific locations on the UCLA campus as he says they’re added to his “list.”

He talks off-camera while he plays a video game in which he runs around a virtual city, firing a gun at cars and people.

In one video, he repeats, “Do you make explosives?”

“Someday the s— might actually hit the fan,” Harris said.

The Times obtained a partial copy of Harris’ email to the UCLA philosophy department.

He makes references to race and uses several profanities. He included links to his manifesto and videos, including the video that appeared to threaten a mass shooting.

“da war is comin,” he wrote. “forward dis [expletive] to our tha goldhead caucasoid princess.”

In reviews left on bruinwalk.com, a site where students can post anonymous reviews of professors and other staff members, two students described Harris’ disturbing and erratic behavior as a lecturer.

Harris “is extremely unprofessional and has sent his personal p*rnographic content to a student,” according to one review.

In a separate post, another student described Harris’ class as their least favorite at UCLA “ever” and said many students had complained to the department about his behavior.

A philosophy department newsletter from spring 2019 stated Harris would join the university as a postdoctoral fellow in philosophy after completing his dissertation at Duke University.

“He works on philosophy of race, personal identity, and related issues in philosophy of mind,” the newsletter stated.

Harris was placed on leave last year while campus officials investigated reports that he sent a video with pornographic content to a student, according to the Daily Bruin. His term as a postdoctoral fellow was set to end in June.

Times staff writers Kevin Rector and Gregory Yee contributed to this report.


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