USC professor’s ex-wife shot him in murder-suicide (+video)

The ex-wife of University of South Carolina professor Raja Fayad was identified Friday as the person who shot and killed him during a murder-suicide on the campus a day earlier, ending what neighbors said had been a contentious relationship between the two that continued after their marriage ended.

The body of Sunghee Kwon, 46, was found at USC’s public health school, where Fayad died, the Richland County Coroner’s office said Friday. The coroner’s office said Kwon shot Fayad, then turned the gun on herself.

Authorities discovered Kwon’s body, along with Fayad’s, in the small office connected to the professor’s laboratory on the fourth floor of the public health school. A handgun was nearby.

Fayad, 45, died from multiple gunshots to the upper body, while Kwon died from one gunshot wound to the abdomen, according to autopsy results released by Coroner Gary Watts.

In a release Friday, Watts said “although the investigation continues, the indication now is that Mr. Fayad was shot and killed by Ms. Kwon, who then shot herself.”

Fayad and Kwon, of 336 Brentland Court, had been married until several years ago, although they had continued a relationship until recently, Watts said.

Fayad, who was an associate professor in the health school, had recently moved out of the Brentland Court home and into a motel along Interstate 20.

Kwon and Fayad bought the $187,000 Brentland home in 2009 after moving from Chicago to South Carolina, according to aquaintences and county tax records.

One neighbor who lives near the Irmo-area home the couple shared said the two had difficulties that were hard to ignore.

“He was scared of her,” said Fathi Elsahi, who teaches part-time at USC. “She was violent with him.”

Rev. Dong Yung Kim, pastor at the Korean Community Presbyterian Church in downtown Columbia, said Kwon had gotten marital counseling at the church after domestic problems erupted. She was coping with the emotions and financial disputes that result from a broken relationship, he said.

“Some of our members tried to help her out” after learning some utilities at the home she once shared with Fayad had been cut off, he said.

In an interview Friday with The State newspaper, the Rev. Kim said his wife had called Kwon a few hours before the shooting “to see if everything was OK” and reported no problems. But he said Kwon was distraught.

“I worried about her emotional stability,” Rev. Kim said. “She felt betrayed.”

Thursday’s deaths, which shut down the USC campus as authorities descended on the area, occurred in a fourth-floor room at the Arnold School of Public Health on Assembly Street in the center of South Carolina’s capital city.

Swarms of officers converged on the Carolina campus after reports of a shooting surfaced before 1 p.m. They closed several city blocks surrounding the western part of campus.

Students, who received text messages and email alerts from the university, left the area of the health school, many taking shelter in classrooms farther away on campus.

The multiple killings are the first on the Carolina campus in more than three decades. A 1979 shooting after a fraternity party left two people dead near the Bates West dorm.

An earlier incident

Thursday’s shootings came about a month after university police tried to resolve a dispute between Kwon and Fayad, a popular professor and researcher.

A USC police incident report from last month shows that Kwon was asked by police to leave Fayad’s laboratory at the health school after the professor called for help, asking officers to evict her.

Fayad told officers arriving on the scene there was “an Asian female who sits in his lab and has no business being in there,” according to the USC police incident report, obtained by The State. The report identified the female as Kwon.

Fayad told USC officer J.S. Guerry that the female “was a student who is trying to enter the PhD program that he was a part of. Fayad said he was uncomfortable with the female who kept making contact with him,” according to the report.

Kwon told police that she was “just sitting in the lab” and trying to enter Fayad's program, according to the report.

Officer Guerry then told Kwon to “leave the area around Fayad’s office and classroom since she did not have official business in the building, and she was not a student in the program,” the report said.

Kwon left the building without resistance. Officers told her not to contact Fayad until she was let into his program, the report said.

Officers then told Fayad “if Kwon tried to contact him again or showed up at his office, to please call” university police immediately.

“Fayad did not feel threatened by Kwon,” the report said.

The police report noted that Department of Motor Vehicles records showed both Kwon and Fayad lived at the same address, 336 Brentland Court, and said that fact warranted further police investigation.

Police did not know at that time that Kwon was Fayad's ex-wife, a status made public Friday evening by coroner Watts as he released Kwon’s name. Fayad apparently told USC police the day after the Jan. 12 incident that the two were “in a relationship” but did not mention they had once been married, a university spokesman said.

USC officials said Friday evening in an email that Kwon had been a university student enrolled in one course in 2014, but had not finished the course.

The couple met in Chicago and apparently wed there before coming to the Columbia area about six years ago, Rev. Kim said. Kwon was born in South Korea, the Presbyterian minister said. He said he doesn’t know how Kwon wound up in the United States. Fayad had been at the University of Illinois-Chicago before moving south.

The weapon found near the bodies of Fayad and Kwon was a Hi-Point 9 mm semi-automatic, authorities said. Hi-Point pistols most often come with eight- or 10-round magazines, but State Law Enforcement Division spokesman Thom Berry did not know how many rounds this particular gun held. He did say the gun had been emptied.

Authorities have searched several locations, including the death scene, but found no note that Kwon might have left that would have helped explain the situation, Berry said.

‘A gentle soul’

Meanwhile Friday, a neighbor of Fayad’s at the I-20 motel where he was living described the professor as a troubled, but cheerful man.

Columbia bus driver Carl Council said he met Fayad several weeks ago at the Value Place inn and the professor appeared to be living alone as he went through a transition in his life. Despite that, Fayad remained upbeat and personable, Council said.

Council said he often saw Fayad in the parking lot and they would talk about the professor’s late model Lexus, which Fayad was proud of. Many days, he would see Fayad in the window of a corner room at the Value Place, reading a book or watching television, and would wave at him, Council said, noting that Fayad was proud of his education.

“He always told me, ‘One thing they can never take from me ... is education,’” Council said. “He said they can take your home, they can take your car, he said they can take anything of material value. But he said, you get an education, you get a diploma or degree or whatever – they can never take that from you.”

Council said Fayad’s death is a loss for society.

“Every time I saw him he had a pleasant look on his face,” Council said. “Great person. To hear that he is gone, it is sad.”

The mood Friday also was somber among the Arnold school staff as well as at the Center for Colon Cancer Research, where Fayad was a mainstay.

“First and foremost, he was a sweet, sweet man, a gentle soul,” said Frank Berger, director of the center. “And we’re having a hard time understanding how anybody would want to hurt him.”

Berger helped recruit Fayad, who had the unusual double threat of strong teaching and research skills. Though he worked on the research side with Fayad, Berger heard of his teaching talents.

“Students are very perceptive,” Berger said. “They know if (professors) really know their stuff and whether they truly care.”

USC President Harris Pastides in a Friday night statement thanked authorities, students and staff and mourned the loss of Fayad.

He also said, “Domestic violence is, of course, a plague on our society and has shaken our university family yet again this year.

“We join in a call to increase awareness and action. Be assured that the University of South Carolina will continue to work for justice to mitigate this plague.”

Staff Writer Joey Holleman contributed.

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