On May 28 1995, a Harvard junior named Sinedu Tadesse killed Trang Ho, her roommate, and then hanged herself. As Ho lay sleeping, Tadesse stabbed her 45 times with a hunting knife she had bought expressly for that purpose. Then, on the way to the bathroom to commit suicide, she took a swipe at one of Ho's visiting friends, a 26-year-old named Thao Nguyen, injuring her too.
The crime was no spur-of-the-moment impulse; Tadesse had purchased the knife in advance, and the week before the murder, Tadesse had even sent a photograph of herself with an anonymous note to The Harvard Crimson, saying "Keep this picture. There will soon be a very juicy story involving this woman."
In the days after the murder, it was generally speculated on campus and in the press that Tadesse had resorted to violence because Ho had asked not to room with her again in the fall, though members of Tadesse's family countered that she was the one who opted out of rooming with Ho, as she (Ho) often stayed with her family in nearby Medford, Massachusetts.
Most analysis of the murder follows the 1997 publication of Halfway Heaven: Diary of a Harvard Murder, a book by 1987 Harvard grad Melanie Thernstrom. Thernstrom was sympathetic towards Tadesse, and blames the university for what happened.
Thernstom travelled to Tadesse's home in Ethiopia and gained access to her diaries, diaries that reveal her deteriorating sanity, her obsessive fantasizing about an ideal friend, and her inability to obtain psychiatric care.
Tadesse had grown up in a relatively well-off family, but during times of chaos and murder in Ethiopia. Her father had been thrown in jail for two years when Tadesse was 7. To escape, Tadesse devoted herself to her studies, gaining admission to the prestigious International Community School where she graduated a valedictorian and gained a scholarship to Harvard.
However, she could not hack Harvard when she arrived. She was unable to keep up academically and she made no friends, not even with the relatives she had in the area. (She had a brother at Dartmouth, which is pretty near by, compared to Ethiopia).
She became so desperately lonely that she sent a letter to dozens of strangers, randomly selected from the phone book, pleading with them to befriend her.
Sophomore and junior years she roomed with Vietnamese student Trang Ho. Ho was apparently very popular and Tadesse was obsessively fond of her. She was offputtingly needy in her demands for attention. In the context of the desperation revealed by her letter to strangers, you can see where Ho's decision to room with another group of girls their senior year would have been devastating to Tadesse.
In despair at having been abandoned, she decided her only recourse was to kill herself, and to take her friend with her.
Could anything have been done to prevent this tragedy? Trang Ho's family thought so, and in 1998 they filed suit against Harvard, alleging "wrongful death, conscious pain and suffering and emotional distress," and charging the university, as well as various people in charge at Dunster House with negligence. They felt that the university had plenty of evidence that Tadesse was melting down, and could have prevented the deaths. I have no idea what happened with this suit.
After the murder, a fierce debate erupted over whether Harvard should establish a scholarship in the names of both girls or only in Ho's. They decided to go with Ho, and if you are a student at Harvard, you can apply for the Trang Ho Public Service Fellowship to pay for charitable good work you intend to perform during the summer after your junior year.
For other Harvard scandals, check out
and others as I get to them.
People Daily, June 7, 1995. http://pathfinder.com/People/daily/95back/950607.html
Review of Halfway Heaven: Diary of a Harvard Murder
Katherine Dunlop's personal recollections of Sinedu and Trang, online at http://www.digitas.harvard.edu/~perspy/old/issues/1997/nov/institutional.html
University Wire, February 19, 1998