During a meeting of local law enforcement tasked with improving school safety, Syracuse Police Deputy Chief Derek McGork revealed a joint law enforcement effort was able to thwart a potentially dangerous situation.
22-year-old Syracuse University student Xiaoteng Zhan was put on law enforcement’s radar when a gunshop employee called the Madison County Sheriff’s Office to report Zhan as a suspicious person.
The employee told deputies Zhan came to the shop to purchase an AR-15 and also inquired about “high capacity shotguns.”
He had a valid New York State hunting license, but the employee refused to sell any weapons to Zhan, who was a Chinese National legally living in the U.S. on a student Visa.
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.
Law enforcement determined Zhan got the license the day before he went to the gunshop on March 12.
“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,” McGork said.
“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,” McGork continued.
It was further determined that the Zhan had sought psychiatric care at two separate facilities around the same time.
The psychiatric evaluations determined that Zhan drank heavily, had suicidal ideations and felt as though he might lose control and act violently.
A separate incident at Northeastern University, where Zhan previously attended was also revealed, but police did not elaborate.
While performing a building check, Zhan’s landlord also told Syracuse Police that he found several rounds of ammunition in plain view inside his apartment on March 16.
Law enforcement was unable to locate Zhan during Syracuse University’s spring break — which also happened to fall during national walkout movements for the Parkland shooting.
That caused further concerned because Zhan’s intentions and motives were still unknown.
Zhan was in Mexico on spring break, and on March 16, a fellow student wrote to Syracuse University about Zhan’s “concerning behavior.”
The student indicated that Zhan exhibited signs of severe depression and wrote in an email, “the dark side of me has propelled me to practice shooting, buying a gun and bulletproof vest.”
The student described him as unstable and was concerned for their own safety while in Mexico.
A search warrant was obtained for Zhan’s Syracuse residence at which time the following items were found at his apartment:
- 1 Advanced Optics Tactical Reflex Dot Sight
- 1 MidTen Tactical Red Dot Gun Sight
- 1 Ultimate Arms Gear Tactical 10, 12 & 20 gauge shotgun shoulder carrier
- A UPS package containing Trinity Supply laser scope
- 1 300 Lumen weapon light
- 2 used gun range targets
- Multiple shotgun slugs and other receipts from a gun range west of Rochester
Since nothing criminal had happened, law enforcement wasn’t sure what to do with Zhan when he got back to the U.S. from Mexico.
Ultimately, upon his return, Zhan’s student visa was revoked and he was deported back to China.
Following Zhan’s deportation communication sent via a Chinese messaging app was translated, further shedding light on his plans.
Zhan: The reason I want to buy guns is not to go hunting. Can we meet tomorrow? I’m only talking about the things I have done, I might do something extreme in the future.
Girl responds: You should go to bed now. You should stop playing that character.
Zhan: I might use the gun to cause trouble.
Girl responds: As long as you don’t kill anyone especially not kids.
Zhan: I don’t need a bulletproof vest to commit suicide. I have been preparing, but the darkside has pushed me to make preparation from practicing shooting to purchasing a gun and a bulletproof vest.
Girl responds: Are you crazy?
Zhan: Who knows? I hope I don’t reach that point. Anti-social personality. Enough about this don’t mention this to anyone.
McGork praised the collaborative effort and stressed the importance of “If you see something, say something.”
Syracuse University issued the following statement:
Dear Students, Faculty, and Staff:
Earlier this evening, a local media outlet published a story about an incident involving a now former Syracuse University student.
Several law enforcement agencies identified that student as posing a potential threat to public safety. When the University learned about the situation, the student was already out of the country. The student never returned to Syracuse, New York and the Syracuse University community was never in danger.
As a result of the quick action and tremendous collaboration between federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, the potential threat was swiftly eradicated.
Because of the nature of the case, Syracuse University honored the request of law enforcement to maintain confidentiality while the investigation was underway to prevent jeopardizing the outcome.
Per our University policy, and because this was a student conduct matter, we will not be providing further details.
Ensuring the safety and well-being of all members of our campus community is and will always be Syracuse University’s chief priority. Any behaviors that violate our community standards, values or Code of Conduct will not be tolerated and will be met with appropriate disciplinary action.