Crime of Passion

By Zachary Block '99 / January / February 1999
November 21st, 2007
In an unusual form of domestic violence, a Brown graduate student was arrested in November for allegedly poisoning his ex-girlfriend, a fellow graduate student, with radioactive materials. According to campus and Providence police, Cheng Gu stole the radioactive iodine-125 from a University lab where he worked, along with his ex-girlfriend, Yuanyuan Xiao, as a graduate student in molecular pharmacology. Gu, angered by a break-up with Xiao, allegedly mixed the iodine-125 in a dish with some eggs and vegetables, which he then delivered to Xiao. The University responded to the incident by immediately placing Xiao in protective custody and by restricting Gu's access to the Brown community and requiring him to obtain a dean's permission before entering campus.

Paul Verecchia, Brown's chief of police, explained that Xiao discovered she was contaminated during a routine radioactivity screening done before and after a researcher conducts an experiment involving any radioactive materials. After failing to find contamination in the laboratory, Brown radiation safety officers searched Xiao's apartment and discovered the remains of the radioactive food in the refrigerator.

University officials said that neither Xiao nor her roommate, James O'Brien '00, who was also contaminated after eating the food, should face any long-term health consequences from their exposure to the radioactive iodine, which is frequently used to treat and diagnose thyroid conditions. According to Stephen Morin, Brown's director of risk management, Xiao and O'Brien each received about the same amount of iodine used in medical procedures.

Xiao told police she and Gu had dated in their native China as well as during their time as students in the United States. Police say Xiao and O'Brien are not romantically linked. Gu gave no statements to the Providence police.

Although Gu's ability to sneak the iodine-125 out of the lab was disturbing, Brown officials defended the lab's security procedures after the incident. Laura Freid, executive vice president for public affairs and University relations, said no flaw had been found in the security procedures and the University had no plans to overhaul lab security. "Anyone who is a human being can decide that they are not going to act like a responsible human being and do things that are not acceptable in our culture," Freid said, adding that no change in procedures can prevent such a determined person from circumventing security.

Agreeing with Freid is Marie Stoeckel '73, chief of the Rhode Island Health Department's office of occupational and radiological health, which licenses Brown's use of radioactive materials. Stoeckel says her office is confident that Brown's security procedures are sufficient and that all security measures were properly followed.Gu, who was released on his own recognizance after a day in jail, is due to appear in court on February 8 to face five felony charges: two of poisoning; two of assault, including one of domestic assault; and one of larceny involving an item worth over $500.

Meanwhile, Gu's immigration status could be in jeopardy. Stan Bisikirski, supervising special agent in the Rhode Island office of the U.S. Immigration Service, says Gu will become eligible for deportation if he is convicted of a felony and receives a minimum one-year sentence. Gu, who transferred last semester to Brown from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, must also regain active status at a university to retain his student visa. A decision on Gu's immigration status will be made after his trial.

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January / February 1999