Syracuse, NY – A Syracuse University student who had been preparing for, and threatening to commit, a mass shooting was captured and deported before he could commit an attack after a gun shop owner thwarted his plans.
On Thursday, a Syracuse Police Department official said that 22-year-old Xiaoteng Zhan had been deported back to China by federal authorities before he was able to use the ammunition and weapon accessories he’d been stockpiling, Syracuse.com reported.
At a school safety meeting on April 5, Syracuse Police Deputy Chief Derek McGork said federal agents had scooped up Zhan as soon as he returned from a Spring Break trip to Mexico.
Chief McGork explained the long path that led police, and Syracuse University, to the conclusion that Zhan had been planning to attempt a mass shooting.
It began when Zhan visited The Gun Store in Nelson on March 12, and tried to buy an AR-15, Syracuse.com reported. He also asked the store’s owner about high-capacity shotguns, the chief said.
Zhan had a valid hunting license that he’d gotten the day before, and which allowed him to possess a firearm as a non-citizen, but the gun store owner still wasn't comfortable with it.
It is a federal offense to own a gun if you are not a U.S. citizen, but there are some exceptions -- like having a valid hunting license, WIVT-TV reported.
The store owner refused to sell a gun to him, and when Zhan left, the store owner followed him out to the parking lot to get his license plate number.
He called police and told them what the Chinese visitor on the student visa was up to, Syracuse.com reported.
Madison County law enforcement tracked the car back to Zhan’s residence in Creekwalk Commons, but Zhan wasn’t there. So they contacted Syracuse PD.
"Our concern was then, who knows that you need a hunting license if you're not a U.S. citizen? And we began to wonder if he had done some research. If this was purposeful and he knew he had to get a hunting license to try and get a gun," Chief McGork told WIVT.
"Ultimately, we had determined he had taken a hunter safety course at Greenway-Verona Mills Fish and Game Club in Verona New York. Again, that became concerning. There are a number of places where you can buy guns in Syracuse. Our concern was why did you drive to Madison County to buy a gun? It gets a little concerning for us," he said.
Chief McGork said that behaving suspiciously and wanting to buy a rifle were not criminal acts, and so police did not have enough for a search warrant.
However, further investigation revealed that Zhan had recently sought psychiatric care from two different facilities, Syracuse.com reported.
Chief McGork said the facilities’ records indicated that Zhan “described drinking, suicidal thoughts, major depression, thoughts of driving a car into a tree, feelings like he might lose control and violence toward no one in particular,” according to Syracuse.com.
The chief said the mental health professionals agreed that the student should not be in possession of a gun, and police were able to put him on a list of people prohibited from purchasing firearms.
Further investigation revealed that Zhan had also tried to buy an AR-15 at Dick’s Sporting Goods, but had been turned down there, too, because the model he wanted to purchase violated New York gun laws, Chief McGork said.
On March 16, the police were contacted by an employee of the apartment complex where Zhan lived, according to Syracuse.com.
An alarm had gone off in Zhan’s apartment, and the employee had used a master key to go inside and shut it off. While he was in the apartment, he saw a stockpile of ammunition, and called police.
That same day, the university heard from some of Zhan’s friends that were on Spring Break with him.
Chief McGork told Syracuse.com that Zhan’s friends had contacted Syracuse University from Mexico, and told the school they were worried about his behavior.
"The reason I want to buy guns is not to go hunting... I might do something extreme in the future,” his friends claimed Zhan had said to them.
A judge approved a search warrant for Zhan’s residence on March 19, six days after his visit to The Gun Store, Syracuse.com reported.
Police found gun sights, ammunition of various kinds, accessories, a scope, and a weapon light in Zhan’s apartment, but they did not find any weapons.
The chief said Zhan still hadn’t committed any crimes, but that the evidence had given authorities enough to get an involuntary order for a psychiatric evaluation, Syracuse.com reported.
Zhan had told a friend that the “dark side” had pushed him to purchase a gun, a bullet-proof vest, and other items, he said.
Chief McGork read translations of some disturbing text messages that Zhan had exchanged with a friend to those assembled at the school safety meeting.
"I might use the gun to cause trouble," Zhan wrote. "I have been preparing."
His frightened friend begged Zhan not to kill her or any children, and Zhan replied, “You're the only one I don't want to kill,” Syracuse.com reported.
Based on the evidence that had been discovered, Syracuse University revoked Zhan’s student status, which invalidated his student visa, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents were waiting to take him into custody at Newark airport when he arrived back from Mexico.
He was immediately deported back to China,
U.S. law enforcement authorities contacted their Chinese counterparts to advise them of the situation; however, police were unclear on what his current status was in China, Syracuse.com reported.