Local News

UNC Professor: Taheri-azar 'Wasn't Shy About Expressing Opinions'

Posted March 5, 2006

— Authorities said they believe Mohammed Reza Taheri-azar, 23, acted alone when he allegedly drove his vehicle onto the UNC-Chapel Hill campus Friday afternoon and injured nine people.

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    "Our ongoing investigation indicates that the suspect's motive was to avenge the deaths of Muslims around the world," said Derek Parch, UNC-Chapel Hill's Director of Public Safety at a news conference Saturday afternoon. "There is every indication in this early stage of the investigation that he acted alone. There is no indication whatsoever that he acted in concert with anyone."

    Taheri-azar, currently at Raleigh's Central Prison under a $5.5 million bond, was charged with nine counts of attempted first-degree murder and nine counts of assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury with intent to kill.

    Authorities said Taheri-azar purposely plowed into students at a common gathering area on the university's campus, known as "The Pit," at around noon on Friday.

    Officers said he rented a Jeep Cherokee from a nearby rental agency, drove onto campus, entering off of Cameron Avenue. He then drove behind Bynum Hall, up between Murphey and Manning halls and continued down between Lenoir and Greenlaw halls before turning into The Pit.

    After exiting the campus off of Emerson Drive, Parch said Taheri-azar called authorities and told them where to pick him up.

    A State Bureau of Investigation bomb squad later evacuated Taheri-azar's apartment building at University Commons and remained at the scene for more than three hours Friday.

    "His indication to us was that we could find the reason for this attack in his apartment," Parch said Saturday.

    Authorities, however, will not say what they found. The FBI is also participating in the investigation, but Parch did not say whether Taheri-azar would face federal charges.

    "I'm seeing it as an act, a violation of State of North Carolina law," Parch said. "And anything past that is just word."

    But when Pieces of the front door of Taheri-azar's Carrboro apartment were still lying on the front porch Saturday when WRAL visited the scene. The door was blasted open a few hours after Taheri-azar's arrest Friday afternoon.

    Ryan Tuck, the editor-in-chief of UNC-Chapel Hill's campus newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, went to Taheri-azar's apartment on Saturday, he said that the door way lying flat and there was no crime-scene tape around.

    He walked into the apartment and into the suspect's room, where he said items were scattered haphazardly.

    "There were 'Go Army' pamphlets, loads of books, mostly to do with science, chemistry and biology," said Tuck. "The 'Go Army' pamphlets stuck in my mind. I didn't know if somebody put those there."

    Inside the room, Tuck said, he also found an acceptance letter to a PhD program at Nova University and a calendar that read, "Light shine in the peaceful mind."

    Nothing, however, inside the apartment that he saw would explain why Taheri-azar drove through the Pit on Friday.

    Born in Iran, Taheri-azar, has spent most of his life in the United States, and, a few weeks ago, began working at Jimmy John's restaurant on Franklin Street, near the UNC campus.

    In 2005, he graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill with a degree in psychology.

    UNC psychology professor Dr. Gordon Pitz, who was Taheri-azar's professor twice, said he was very shocked about what happened Friday.

    Taheri-azar took Pitz's seminar in decision theory and research methods class -- required for all psychology majors.

    "He was unusual in his willingness to seek help, to discuss issues," Pitz said. "He wasn't shy about expressing his opinions."

    But Pitz said they never discussed Taheri-azar's religious beliefs.

    "He was certainly not shy, but he never expressed any kind of hostility, that I was aware of," Pitz said.

    Taheri-azar was very serious about his grades and very involved in UNC's psychology club, even serving for a while as the club's president, Pitz said.

    He never gave Pitz any indication that he was capable of such an attack that authorities said he was responsible for.

    Rumors quickly spread around the UNC campus Friday that the attack was in response to the campus newspaper's recent publication of a political cartoon depicting the prophet Muhammad.

    On its Web site, the UNC Muslim Students Association, which was among the leading critics of the cartoon, as well as others published in European newspapers, denounced Taheri-azar's actions, and said he had never been a member of the organization.

    "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," a statement on the Web site said.

    Other local Muslim associations also condemn the actions, including the Raleigh Islamic Center, which released a statement Saturday saying it was "deeply troubled by this individual's actions."

    Taheri-azar is expected to appear in an Orange County District Court Monday.

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