Zhifan Dong was a first-year undergraduate student at the University of Utah when she and Haoyu Wang began dating last fall. Like her, Wang was an international student from China in his first semester who also lived on campus.
In February 2022, one month after Dong reported that Wang assaulted her, she was found dead at a motel in Salt Lake City. Wang, who emailed a university official that he and Dong were going to die by suicide together, was arrested at the scene.
A timeline of events involving the students, as well as university staffers' attempts to intervene, was laid out in documents released by the University of Utah on Tuesday. The documents show delays and missteps in the school's efforts to address the crisis, and that the staff, though concerned, had not properly identified and responded to reports of intimate violence and suicidal ideation.
"We trusted the University of Utah with our daughter’s safety, and they betrayed that trust," her parents, Junfang Shen and Mingsheng Dong, said in a statement provided to BuzzFeed News. "They knew Zhifan was in serious danger but failed to protect her when she needed it the most. We do not want her death to be in vain."
Dong, 19, and Wang, 26, were admitted to the school through its Utah Global program and met in fall 2021. Dong's roommate, Bailey McGartland, told student newspaper the Daily Utah Chronicle that Dong and Wang started dating early in the semester, and Dong began living in his room on the floor above almost immediately.
The first reported physical assault occurred on Jan. 12, according to the timeline laid out by the school. The couple were at a motel off campus when Dong reported to the front desk that Wang hit her. Salt Lake City police then arrested Wang and issued Dong a temporary protective order.
On Jan. 14, Dong told the university's housing staff about Wang's suicidal ideation and asked them to check up on him. She told them about the assault at the motel, describing herself as Wang's ex-girlfriend.
"We both have depression and are in a bad situation," she said, according to a report by housing staff. It was the first time the school was informed of the Jan. 12 incident; the University of Utah said there is no process requiring local police to inform a university of any arrests or protective orders involving students.
University officials could not get in touch with Wang on Jan. 14, and subsequent attempts to reach him and Dong over the next few days were unsuccessful.
By Jan. 31, access card data showed that Wang had not swiped into a housing building on campus for over a week. Dong's suitemate told officials conducting a wellness check that she hadn't seen Dong in a while.
School officials repeatedly tried to contact both of them, as well as their parents in China, over the next few days. Dong told the school that she was at an off-campus location, but declined to say where she was or meet police in person, and refused help with her protective order.
On Feb. 9, Dong's mother told the university that she spoke with her daughter, who was sad because of her breakup, and that she would return to campus in two days.
On a call with housing staff member the next day, Wang was irate, according to correspondence released by the university. Wang asked "who was going to pay" for him losing his reputation and being accused of being a domestic abuser, and said it should be the police because they did not believe him. He also said to stop contacting him and that he wouldn't be going back to campus.
Then, at 3:51 a.m. the next day, Wang emailed a housing administrator saying that he and Dong were going to die by suicide together using drugs that he bought on the "dark net."
"She knows that I suffered so much (because of my illness and horrible life) and cannot keep going. So, she decided to go with me," he wrote.
"We planned to leave this world on 15th, but I messed up. While we were trying the feeling that heroin would brought to us, I was fine, but she got severe respiratory depression and vomited," Wang wrote. "She was unconscious during the following several hours. I didn't have a heart to see she suffering. So, I injected high dose of heroin to her, witch would relief her from suffering."
The housing administrator saw the email an hour later and informed the police, who located them via cellphone data at a Quality Inn in Salt Lake City. University police and Salt Lake City police went to the scene and found her dead, then arrested Wang there.
Wang has been charged with murder and two counts of possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute. He is currently being held at the Salt Lake County Jail.
In a letter issued Tuesday, university President Taylor Randall acknowledged that school officials had shortcomings in their response to the situation, including "a delay by former members of our housing services staff in notifying the University of Utah Police Department of indications of intimate partner violence; processes, procedures and trainings in housing that needed to be clarified and improved; and insufficient and unprofessional internal communication."
Dong's roommate, McGartland, said campus police and Salt Lake City police should have acted sooner.
"It was absolutely preventable," she told the Chronicle about Dong's death. McGartland also said that the Utah Global program did not help international students integrate into campus life.
"Zhifan was isolated from day one," she said. "I can clearly see that she was being manipulated from day one. She came here and had no friends, no support."
Several staff members were reprimanded for failing to report the January assault to the necessary university departments and not requiring a welfare check, which would have involved the police early on. Documents show that school officials also scrambled the students' names in a text message, referring to them as "Wong" and "Dang," and mixed up their names in meeting minutes. The university also initially contacted the parent of a different Haoyu Wang at the school.
"There's quite a few communications with the housing officials where it's clear they don't even know which one is the male and which one is the female. And so that's like their level of understanding of their situation, that they just don't even know who they're talking to," Brian Stewart, an attorney representing Dong's parents, told BuzzFeed News.
Dong's parents, who are from the Henan province, plan to sue the university for failing to protect their daughter, Stewart said.
This is not the first domestic violence incident involving a University of Utah student that resulted in death. In 2018, Lauren McCluskey, a senior on the school's track and field team, was shot and killed outside her dorm by a 36-year-old man she had briefly dated, who authorities said lied to her about his age and was a registered sex offender.
McCluskey had previously reported that the man was harassing her and extorting her over explicit photos of herself. In May 2020, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that days before she was killed, a university police officer assigned to her case shared those photos with at least three other officers and said that he could "look at them whenever he wanted."
Two years after her death, her parents agreed to a $13.5 million settlement with the state of Utah and the university.
Stewart, whose law firm Parker & McConkie also represented the McCluskey family, said Dong loved to read, dance, and play the piano. She was an only child to her parents and the only grandchild in her family.
"They had certainly put all of their hopes and dreams and efforts into her, and now their family won't continue. That's been very hard for them," he said. "They sent their daughter to the United States, put her on a plane to go study at an American university, and then never saw her again."
Stewart said he believed Dong was homesick and echoed McGartland, the roommate, that she was "very isolated" in the US.
"She did the right thing — she spoke to the police, she spoke to housing, she reported [the assault] to the university, and they still couldn't get their act together enough to protect her and get her the resources she needed in time," he said.