Local News

FBI Joins Investigation Of UNC Hit-And-Run

Posted March 4, 2006
Updated December 12, 2006

— Authorities say 23-year-old Mohammed Reza Taheri-azar, who drove a silver Jeep Grand Cherokee into The Pit at the UNC-Chapel Hill campus around noon Friday, may have acted to avenge American treatment of Muslims.

Police intend to charge Taheri-azar, who graduated from UNC in December with a dual degree in psychology and philosophy, with nine counts of attempted murder and nine counts of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill, said Capt. George Hare of the UNC Department of Public Safety.

The FBI joined the case because Taheri-azar, a native of Iran, "allegedly made statements that he acted to avenge the American treatment of Muslims. The ongoing investigation will work to confirm this," said Special Agent Richard Kolko, an FBI spokesman in Washington.

Last month, Muslim students at UNC protested the publication in The Daily Tar Heel student newspaper of an original cartoon depicting the prophet Muhammad. Islam is interpreted to forbid any illustrations of Muhammad for fear they could lead to idolatry. The recent publication of a series of cartoons of Muhammad in European newspapers sparked violent protests in the Middle East and elsewhere.

The Muslim Students Association, which was among the leading critics of the cartoon, said Teheri-azar had never been a member of the group and denounced him on its Web site.

"Regardless of what his intentions prove to be, we wholeheartedly deplore this action, and trust that our fellow classmates will be able to dissociate the actions of this one disturbed individual from the beliefs of the Muslim community as a whole," the statement said. "Peace be upon you all."

Six people -- five students and a visiting lecturer -- were taken to UNC Hospitals with minor injuries, hospital spokesman Tom Hughes said. All six have been treated and released. Three other people declined treatment on the scene, according to police.

Authorities found the vehicle used in the hit-and-run on Plant Road near Franklin Street and Taheri-azar was taken into custody. Authorities said that drugs and alcohol are not believed to have been involved.

A student who witnessed the event, said that the SUV was going between 40 and 45 mph when it hit the students at the Pit, which is located in an open area surrounded by two libraries, a dining hall and the Frank Porter Graham Student Union on campus.

Campus police said Taheri-azar used an area designed to give access to Lenoir Hall to work his way to the Pit. Coming from the parking lots in the north side of Davis Library, a car could travel down the side of the cafeteria and end up in the Pit from there. Normally, there are barricades up but on Friday, they were not in place.

Several witnesses saw the SUV as plowed through that part of campus.

"He was speeding up and swerving to hit people. One person got knocked onto the windshield, and he didn't care," said student Lauren Westafer, who saw the accident.

"I see everyone kind of part because there's a car coming through and the next thing I know, I'm on his windshield," sophomore Jeff Hoffman, his arm in a bandage, told the The Daily Tar Heel.

On a sunny, cool day like Friday, the Pit is a busy center of campus activities, with students perched along the walkways and steps. Friday's noontime crowd included a gathering of candidates for Black Student Movement elections.

Nicholas Altman, who was having coffee nearby, said that one man was hit and thrown onto the hood of the SUV. That person was taken away on a stretcher, Altman said.

"I was on my phone and I heard somebody scream," Altman said. "I turned around and there was a white SUV. It looked like it hit a couple of people. One person in particular went over the hood."

Student affairs staff and counselors have been providing support to students who watched the scene unfold.

Around two hours after the crash, state and local investigators surrounded Building D at University Commons Apartments at 303 Smith Level Road in Carrboro, where Taheri-azar lived with two roommates.

Josh Curd, 26, who lives in the same building as Taheri-azar, said that at about 12:30 p.m. an officer knocked loudly on his door and "tells me to get out and run up the hill." Curd complied and remained outside after dark in nothing but medical scrubs and a T-shirt.

A bomb squad from the State Bureau of Investigation spent about 4 1/2 hours at Taheri-azar's apartment at the request of police before declaring the building safe. Taheri-azar "encouraged the checking of his apartment" with comments made after he was arrested, Carrboro police spokesman Capt. Joel Booker said.

"He said it almost in a baiting type of way," Booker said.

Local authorities declined to say what they found in Taheri-azar's apartment or to discuss a motive. Investigators continued to search the apartment Friday night for other evidence, Booker said.

"As far as delving into his motives and things like that, we're in the process of developing that in our investigation," Hare said.

According to police records, Taheri-azar was convicted of unsafe movement in August 2003 after being charged with driving left of center and failing to obey a traffic officer in Orange County.

A month later, he was convicted of reckless driving to endanger for speeding and reckless driving, also in Orange County.

The incident came just a week after the campus was shaken by the death of one of two students who crashed through a dormitory window, falling four stories onto the concrete below. The second student remained hospitalized in fair condition.

Friday's incident brought back memories of a deadly day near campus from several years ago. Back in 1995, Wendell Williamson walked down a street near campus and opened fire. Two people died in the rampage.

Williamson, who was a law student, was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and sent to Dorothea Dix Mental Hospital, where he remains under care.

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