UCSB friends were victims of circumstance
Before he exacted his revenge, Elliot Rodger wrote extensively about the people he hated for rejecting him: Popular men. Beautiful women. People who partied hard.
James Hong, David Wang and George Chen were not those people. They just happened to spend time in the same apartment as Rodger.
When Chen, Wang and Hong arrived at UC Santa Barbara in the fall of 2012, they became fast friends.
Introduced through their computer engineering classes, they shared a passion for math and science and dreamed of creating a start-up together after graduation. They had each moved from the Bay Area — Chen and Wang were the sons of Chinese immigrants who came to the U.S. via Canada; Hong emigrated from Taiwan.
They avoided their university’s often wild party scene, family and friends said, preferring computer games, programming marathons or pickup basketball.
When their second year rolled around, Wang and Hong moved into a small apartment in Isla Vista, the beachside community near UCSB. Chen’s parents wanted him to live on campus for another year, so a third roommate was assigned to Apartment No. 7 in the charcoal-gray complex on Seville Road. His name was Elliot Rodger.
From the beginning, there was friction. When Wang’s mother helped him move in, she recalled, she told the three roommates to look after one another. Rodger brushed her off.
Wang later told his mother that Rodger spent a lot of time out of the apartment or alone in his room.
Rodger didn’t care for his roommates. In a 137-page diatribe, he complained about the noise they made and called them names. “These were the biggest nerds I had ever seen,” he wrote.
The mood in the apartment grew more tense over time. In January, Rodger became enraged over a meal Hong was cooking and snatched away a measuring cup. Annoyed, Hong grabbed the closest thing that belonged to Rodger — three candles — and expected to make a trade. Instead, Rodger called the police and made a citizen’s arrest.
When a sheriff’s deputy arrived, Hong insisted he had proof Rodger had been moving his belongings around the apartment. Rodger denied the claims, the deputy wrote in a report. When Hong refused to give the candles back, the deputy handcuffed him and booked him on suspicion of petty theft.
Hong was frustrated, but he didn’t want to further escalate tensions with his roommate. By May, he and Wang had made plans to move out, and they signed a lease with Chen for a new apartment. They kept their distance from Rodger.
This was life in Apartment No. 7 until May 23.
That night, police discovered the bodies of Chen, 19, Wang, 20, and Hong, 20, inside.
Exactly what happened remains unclear. Santa Barbara Sheriff Bill Brown called it a “pretty horrific crime scene,” saying the three men had been “stabbed repeatedly with sharp objects.”
An attorney representing the three families, Todd Becker, said they believe the killings occurred sometime that day and that a knife, a hammer and a machete were used.
Police found the bodies late that night after Rodger embarked on his deadly rampage across Isla Vista, killing three other UCSB students and wounding 13 people before taking his own life.
There are many questions, including how the slightly built Rodger could have overpowered the three young men. A sheriff’s spokeswoman said investigators were looking into whether the victims had been drugged.
“I don’t want to know,” David Wang’s mother, Jinshuang Liu, said at her home in Fremont, her eyes brimming with tears. “I remember my son as really handsome, good heart, nice to everybody. That’s what I remember.”
A half-dozen bouquets, a candle and a framed photo of Chen formed a small memorial outside his parents’ home in San Jose. The family has lived in the neighborhood since moving from Ottawa when Chen was 5.
With two engineers as parents, Chen gravitated toward math and science. He went to his high school an hour early each day to tutor his classmates and spent the summer after graduation volunteering at a computer camp for children.
“So warm-hearted and so gentle — I remember him so well,” said Hailing Wang, who ran the camp. “I thought, ‘This is not a child in this world.’ Because now teenagers are so different.”
Helping others was important to Chen, his mother said. He volunteered with a Buddhist-based group and the YMCA. When his father began doing small tasks for an elderly neighbor, Chen joined in, sometimes going across the street several times a day to carry in the newspaper or lift a heavy box.
“He’d smile at everything,” his mother, Kelly Wang, said of her eldest son. “Everything for George is fun. He didn’t complain.”
The summer before his freshman year at UCSB, Chen counted down the days until he moved to campus. With 17 to go, he wrote to a friend on Facebook: “First time in my life where I can’t wait for summer to be over.”
At his high school in San Jose, James Hong was shy. He rarely raised his hand in class, friends said, and would dash off after lunch to play chess in a classroom.
“People who got to know him understood him — and he was beloved,” said William Wang, who attended Lynbrook High School with Hong. “He was nice and friendly with everyone.”
At UCSB, Hong flourished. He excelled in the classroom, earning praise from his classmates during a 24-hour programming marathon. He made friends with the people in his dorm, playing dodge ball, attending open-mic nights and taking part in a campus competition. Facebook photos show a smiling Hong wearing face paint, a friend’s arm slung around his shoulder.
He also earned a reputation as a skilled ping-pong player.
“He could wipe the floor with anyone,” said Saili Raje, a fellow engineering student at UCSB. “When he played against me, he used his non-dominant hand and he still beat me. But he was really sweet about it.”
In a statement read at a memorial at UCSB soon after his death, Hong’s family said that he “wanted to stay here forever,” calling it “the happiest two years of my life.”
Days later, the Santa Barbara district attorney cleared the petty theft conviction from his record, saying it was the “right thing to do.”
David Wang moved to Fremont shortly before his sophomore year of high school, leaving Vancouver for the Bay Area city where his mother worked as a nurse. He didn’t want to move at first, his mother said, having already left China for Canada as a boy.
Wang never sought attention at Fremont Christian School, never boasted about his near-perfect grades, his former classmates and principal said. He spent lunch breaks on the basketball court.
Wang had played since he was a boy in Canada — he had trouble making friends there, his mother said, so his father bought him a basketball.
Over time, his confidence grew in Fremont. He made friends and mastered public speaking, and he won a “most inspirational player” award from his junior varsity basketball team. The small silver trophy sat on a table inside his parents’ living room.
“David is not the best player — he’s not that tall, he’s not that strong. But he’s really the most hard-working,” his mother,Liu, said. “He’s just that kind of guy.”
Two weeks before Wang was killed, Liu became sick — a rarity, she said. Wang called his mother in the middle of the night so she wouldn’t worry about him, her only child.
“Everything’s OK,” he said. “Don’t worry. Just relax. I’m OK.”
When George Chen’s father heard about the rampage that night, he figured his son was safe — he was still living on campus, away from the violence. Junan Chen came across a video of Rodger but shut it off after two minutes. “This sick guy,” he thought.
He and his wife called their son, but he didn’t pick up. They figured he was out enjoying a Friday night with friends.
The next day, authorities came to their door.
“At the beginning, I think probably there’s a different George Chen because it’s a popular name, George,” his mother said. “I didn’t believe it.”
David Wang’s mother was working when she noticed a voicemail on her cellphone. It was the Sheriff’s Department. She called back but got no answer.
When she got home, she saw an alert from UCSB. Her stomach fell as she frantically tried to call her son. When a friend got to her house, Liu couldn’t stop shaking.
When the reporters started calling, Junan Chen said, he ripped the phone cord out of the wall.
At a recent memorial service for Chen in San Jose, his mother read aloud the prayer she’s been repeating since her son was killed.
“If someone exhibits signs of committing violence, every effort should be taken to protect innocent lives,” Kelly Wang said. “There is never too much precaution, because every single life is too precious to lose.”
David Wang’s parents also spoke at the memorial. As they made their way back to their seats, Chen’s parents stood.
The fathers shook hands. The mothers wrapped their arms around each other, holding tight as they fought back tears.
Times staff writers Richard Winton and Adolfo Flores contributed to this report.
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