Man, 18, charged with murder in shooting death of University of Chicago graduate
CHICAGO - An 18-year-old man has been arrested and charged with the murder of a University of Chicago graduate student shot and killed during a robbery earlier this week near the school campus.
Alton Spann was arrested Wednesday, police said. On Friday, he was charged with first-degree murder, armed robbery and two counts of unlawful use of a weapon in the death of 24-year-old Shaoxiong Zheng.
Police say Zheng was on the sidewalk in the 900 block of East 54th Street in Hyde Park when a dark-colored car pulled up and a gunman got out shortly before 2 p.m.
Witnesses told officers Zheng appeared to struggle with Spann and Spann then shot him once in the torso, police said.
Police say Spann took electronics from Zheng, got back in the car and fled west on 54th Place.
Zheng was taken to the University of Chicago Medical Center down the street, where he was pronounced dead.
Not long after, police say Spann sold the electronics to a pawn shop for $100.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot released a statement on the charges Friday night.
"Mayor Lightfoot is extremely proud of the dogged and phenomenal work of the Chicago Police Department’s Bureau of Detectives to quickly apprehend and charge Alton Spann for the murder of Shaoxiong Zheng. Individuals who commit senseless and cowardly acts of violence, and who recklessly cut short the lives of residents must be held accountable, and it the Mayor’s hope that this announcement can serve as the first step on the long road toward healing and justice for Mr. Zheng’s family and loved ones, as well as the University of Chicago Community.
The Mayor will continue to keep this young man’s family, as well as the entire Hyde Park and University of Chicago communities in her prayers as they continue to grapple with this tragic loss. As communities throughout Chicago continue to struggle with gun violence, protecting the lives and wellbeing of all of Chicago’s residents and visitors remains the Mayor’s top priority."
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The university released a statement after the shooting saying it immediately began increasing patrols near the campus, and encouraged students and faculty to remain alert.
Zheng hadn’t been in Chicago long, but his murder has resonated across a city facing its second straight year of rising violence.
The University of Chicago, where "a bright and talented" Zheng recently got his master’s in statistics, called on the mayor and police superintendent to treat violence as a "public health crisis."
Members of the City Council from the Hyde Park area said a state of emergency exists and a summit needs to be held to figure out "how we triage neighborhoods."
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who lives in Hyde Park, asked, "When is enough, enough?" and called for "an immediate and urgent response to the violence."
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By the end of the day, Mayor Lori Lightfoot — who beat Preckwinkle for the office — promised to meet with police brass and community leaders "to determine concrete, tangible measures [that] can be taken to prevent tragedies such as these in the future."
No one offered details, though the university said "we will share specifics soon" after further talks with City Hall and others.
Lightfoot and Police Supt. David Brown have regularly announced stepped-up efforts against crime.
In October, Brown unveiled a tip line that offers cash rewards in homicide and gun trafficking cases. Brown also increased patrols in River North following an uptick in crime. Lightfoot’s 2022 budget promises to boost funding for an array of violence prevention programs.
But the violence has stubbornly stayed high.
There have been at least 698 homicides this year compared to 680 this time last year. At this point in 2019, the city had seen just 442 homicides.
At least 3,909 people have been shot this year, an increase of almost 9% compared to the same point in 2020 and 69% compared to 2019.
In Hyde Park, there were no murders by this time last year but there have been five this year, according to police to police statistics.
Shootings in Hyde Park have more than tripled this year to 16, a spike but still low compared to Woodlawn, the community area to the south. It has seen 83 shootings so far this year, an increase of 150% compared to the same time in 2019. It’s also seen 13 homicides this year, up from 8 in 2020 and 9 in 2019.
"The five murders in Hyde Park this year are shocking and demand action, but we also must not lose sight of the fact that there are many other neighborhoods in the city that year after year suffer many more homicides and shootings — and that too should be shocking," said Roseanna Ander, executive director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab and Education Lab.
"I do hope that the tragedies and the loss of life in Hyde Park help to galvanize an unprecedented effort and a commitment to finding solutions not only in Hyde Park but in every corner of our city," she added.
Zheng had graduated from the University of Hong Kong in 2019 and got his master’s in statistics at the University of Chicago this past summer.
"He was motivated, independent, and intellectually curious," said Mei Wang, director of the statistics master’s program. "He aspired to be a data scientist who could solve important problems facing our society, and who could help people to help more people."
Professor Dan Nicolae said Zheng "was not only a promising scholar but also a wonderful person, always willing to help other students. He will be missed by all who knew him."
Xi Cheng, who knew Zheng for six months, remembered him as a "really positive, nice person." The two became friends after they were connected on WeChat, a Chinese instant message and social media app, and donated clothes to Goodwill.
"I can feel he loves Chicago so much," Cheng said. "I can feel he really enjoyed here and loves this [city] so it’s really tragic to hear."
Cheng, 22, choked up as she recalled Zheng and his love for sports, especially table tennis, and photography. "May he rest in peace."
U. of C. staff members, students and friends of Zheng — many of them holding bouquets of flowers — stopped by a memorial in the 1000 block of East 54th street Wednesday evening.
Some lit candles that flickered in the night breeze, others wrote messages to Zheng on white poster boards held down with rocks. One poster read, "Stop gun violence."
Two university staff members, who did not want to be named, stuck signs in the ground that read, "Justice for innocent" and "Innocent cannot die in vain!"
"We feel this is really, really probably the worst year for U of Chicago," one of the women said, noting three students have been gunned down in the last year. "We feel we have to do something, you just cannot let it go on forever."
‘This is a crisis’
In a statement released Wednesday evening, Lightfoot said detectives were "hard at work on the case and are pursuing a number of leads." She didn’t say what they were or if an arrest was imminent.
Lightfoot said she had "several detailed discussions" with the U. of C. president Paul Alivisatos. While they work out longer-range plans, the mayor said patrols by campus police and Chicago police will be increased on the campus and around Hyde Park.
"In the longer term, the city will continue engaging local community members, aldermen, and other involved stakeholders to gather feedback and recommendations on enhancing other public safety measures throughout the Hyde Park and Kenwood communities," Lightfoot said.
Neither she nor Alivisatos would say what those measures might be, though the school president said they will include "working with our neighbors [and] calling on our university community’s academic and policy expertise."
Ald. Sophia King (4th) and Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) said a summit on Chicago violence needs to be held as soon as possible.
"There needs to be a place where we are at the table with the governor, where we are at the table with the mayor, where we are at the table with the county, where we are at the table with the city," Hairston said. "It needs to take place quick, fast and in a hurry.
"This is a state of an emergency and this is a crisis," she added.
Preckwinkle made a similar call. But like the council members and the mayor, she mentioned no specific measures to reduce the city’s chronic violence.
"We need an immediate and urgent response to the violence as well as a long-term plan to address those root causes of violence," she said, promising to reach out "to relevant stakeholders to bring everyone together and establish real world results."
Sun-Times Media Wire contributed to this report.