DURHAM, N.C. — Those who knew Abhijit Mahato say he was so brilliant that someday he would have changed the world.
By all accounts, the 29-year-old from Tatanagar, India, was an extremely social, outgoing and caring man who made friends easily.
He was gentle, intelligent, kind and thoughtful, friends remember. He enjoyed poetry and loved literature. He was a scientist studying for an engineering doctoral degree – his hope was to return, someday, to India and teach at the university level.
As a second-year graduate student at Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering, Mahato had been working on tire-safety research sponsored by Michelin and was preparing to take his Ph.D. qualifying exams.
He and a group of buddies were also saving up to buy a car to get around.
But Mahato’s life was cut short nearly a year ago, when someone shot and killed him inside his off-campus apartment.
Autopsy results show a pillow was placed over his face before the single bullet that killed him was fired. Police consider the slaying a random crime – with robbery being the motive.
But what haunts Rinku Majumder, one of his closest friends and one of the three people who found his body on Jan. 18, 2008, is not knowing what happened.
The two were like brother and sister.
"I don't know why and how he loved me so much," she said. "And then he left me, like this. It's been really, really difficult for me to live my life."
Majumder says bank statements show two withdrawals – totaling $500 – from Mahato's savings account the day she found his body. She believes that withdrawal is connected to the crime.
“It is my feeling, because he would never withdraw from his savings account," Majumder said. "If he wants the money, he would withdraw from his checking account."
Durham police won’t talk about the case and won’t say if the information is part of the evidence. Durham County District Attorney Tracey Cline also won’t discuss specifics outside the courtroom.
Friends say they've received little information about the investigation since the arrests of two suspects – Stephen Lavance Oates, 20, in January, and Laurence Alvin Lovette Jr., in March.
“We just know they were caught, and that's it," said Samarban Majumder, Rinku's husband. "What's the state of the case, what is going on and what is going to happen? We don't know."
What little authorities have disclosed comes from search warrants and court proceedings.
Lovette allegedly stole a cell phone, wallet and an iPod – with a combined value of about $300 – before Mahato was shot to death inside his 1600 Anderson St. apartment, according to an arrest warrant.
The cell phone helped police link Lovette to the crime when he was arrested in March in the slaying of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill senior Eve Carson.
According to warrants in that case, Lovette and another man, Demario James Atwater, made several ATM withdrawals from her bank account before shooting her to death in a Chapel Hill neighborhood.
Cline has also said police found Mahato's iPod on Lovette and that investigators were not sure which suspect shot Mahato.
"He could have given everything they wanted," Renke Majumder said. "They could have just slapped him and taken his money and left him. Why did they have to kill him?"
Mahato's slaying rattled the Duke University community, especially the international student community, said Mike Schoenfeld, Duke's vice president for public affairs and government relations.
"The death of Abhijit Mahato last year was a very difficult moment for the campus – difficult for students, difficult for the faculty," Schoenfeld said. "After all, he was somebody that had been recruited and brought here with great promise."
As the criminal case continues, Mahato's colleagues at the Pratt School of Engineering say they try to focus on who he was as a person rather than the way his life ended.
"I think most of us have tried to separate that side, in the first place, and to focus on Abhijit's legacy," said Marianne Hassan, an associate dean at the school, who says she thinks about Mahato at least once a week, still.
"Instead of looking backward, we've been looking forward and taking positive steps, instead of drawing on such negative and hurtful actions," she continued.
The Pratt school has also set up a memorial fund for Mahato, and Duke University established the Abhijit Mahato Memorial Fellowship, which will provide financial support each year to a Duke international graduate student studying engineering, with preference to students from India.
"He was a special person. He was very special," Hassan said. "We really are hoping that his memory, as well as his legacy, will live onward."