November 20, 2007

Graduate student shot to death

Amadou Cisse, a 29-year-old graduate student in the chemistry department, was shot and killed Sunday night walking home to his apartment on the 6100 block of South Ellis Avenue.

According to police, Cisse, a student from Senegal, was approached by a gunman at 1:26 a.m. and shot once in the chest. Witnesses in nearby apartment buildings heard the gunshot and, upon discovering Cisse lying on the sidewalk, called 911. Paramedics declared him dead at the scene.

The Chicago Police Department (CPD) has not yet released detailed information about the shooting, and witness accounts are unclear. A small-caliber gun was recovered in an alley close to Cisse’s apartment, but police could not yet connect the weapon to his death, nor could they confirm some accounts that the gunman fled in a dark-colored sedan. The initial investigation has focused on the possibility that the shooting may have occurred in the midst of a robbery, although Cisse’s wallet, keys, cell phone, and backpack were all on his person.

“We’ve got nothing really concrete,” said CPD Detective W. Golab, who is leading the investigation. “Witnesses said there was a car, but we’re not sure if there’s a connection or not. At this point, I’ve basically been typing and just making calls notifying families.”

The University, at the urging of the CPD, is offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the killer.

Police are also investigating the possibility that the shooting is linked to two other violent incidents Sunday night. At 12:33 a.m., a University staff member was chased down the 6000 block of South Woodlawn Avenue by a gunman who fired once in his direction. Forty-five minutes later, two women were robbed outside the University Hospitals complex on East 57th Street between South Drexel and South Ellis Avenues by a man who said he was armed.

“They’re going to look at those two incidents to see if there’s any connection between the two incidents and the homicide,” said Rudy Nimocks, director of the U of C Police Department (UCPD).

“My only thought is hopefully they’re all connected so that there are more witnesses,” said Timothy O’Connell, Cisse’s landlord, who described the graduate student as an ideal tenant who was dedicated to his studies. “In my 11 years renting to students, this is the first horrible thing of this sort that I know of.”

Cisse had successfully completed his dissertation defense on November 1 and was expected to graduate at winter convocation on December 7. The University will award the degree posthumously, said Kim Goff-Crews, vice president and dean of students.

Cisse studied atomic oxygen erosion, presenting his Ph.D. thesis on the topic of how molecules diffuse and migrate through films made of large molecules called polymers, and during his time at the University, he worked for the Sibener Group, a multidisciplinary program focused on physics, physical chemistry, surface science, and materials research.

He graduated from Bates College in 2001 with degrees in physics, mathematics, and chemistry after coming to the United States from Senegal to attend high school.

“I think working with students was one of the things he most enjoyed,” said Miriam Freedman, a graduate student who worked with Cisse, in a University press release. “He was always talking about how to improve his students’ understanding of the material and rooting for their success.”

“He wasn’t one of those kids that had everything. He didn’t even have a laptop, and he was just working and doing everything he could to help pay for tuition,” O’Connell said.

O’Connell questioned the University’s safety procedures, noting that a blue light emergency phone on the block where Cisse was shot was recently removed to make way for the construction of the new dorm and that a planned UCPD relocation to the new parking garage south of the Midway—expected to open over the summer—had stalled.

“I have automatic lights, a gate, but if we don’t have help with security from the University’s side of things, it’s hard to get it right,” O’Connell said. “When you’ve got security issues, you expect it to help expedite things through the red tape.”

“[The blue light]’s been down for a couple of months. It’s impossible because of the sub-wiring,” Nimocks said at a community forum in the Reynolds Club hosted by the University Monday night. “We’re also trying to expedite the opening of that building.”

At the meeting and in a subsequent e-mail from President Robert Zimmer, administrators outlined a number of steps the University will take in response to the shooting. Two additional vans will be immediately added to the SafeRide late night van service in an effort to reduce time spent waiting for the shuttles to arrive, and police bicycle patrols of campus and the surrounding area will begin on Tuesday.

In the long term, the UCPD plans to permanently double the police presence between midnight and 8 a.m. with the addition of between 12 and 15 new patrol units. Furthermore, the UCPD will open a temporary substation south of campus until the transition to the new headquarters is completed.

“As always, we’re concerned about safety across campus, but we’re particularly concerned about south campus,” Goff-Crews said at the meeting. Cisse’s murder is the first of a U of C student in over 30 years.

The University is also weighing the possibility of installing security cameras in public spots of the campus and surrounding area.

“Cameras raise issues; they also have benefits,” said Hank Webber, vice president for community and government affairs, at the meeting. “And we will be working with you [students].”

The shootings also prompted the first implementation of the University’s cAlert system, which notified students, faculty, and staff by phone and text message around 11:30 a.m. Monday of the incident. Some questioned the lag between the shooting and the alert being sent out.

“There’s always a difficult balance here,” Webber said in a phone interview. “You want to have the facts right; you evaluate the nature of the threat. The people involved in this believed that we needed to notify people quickly, but we were best off notifying people in the morning when we had a better sense of the facts.”

Student Government and the Inter-House Council will be hosting a security forum next Wednesday at 5 p.m. Police and University administrators are urging anyone with information about the shooting to contact CPD’s Area 2 Violent Crimes Unit at (312) 747-8272.

Editor-in-Chief Kat Glass contributed to this report.