The First-Ever Harvard Dorm Room Murder
A woman's failing mental health and an obsession with her roommate led to a murder-suicide
Sinedu Tadesse was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Her family was well-off financially but her childhood was nothing short of chaotic. At the age of seven, Sinedu’s father was jailed for two years. This resulted in Sinedu being relentlessly bullied and tormented by her schoolmates as well as by her own relatives. Her self-esteem was crippled beginning at a young age.
Nonetheless, Sinedu excelled academically, graduating as valedictorian and gaining admission to the prestigious ivy league Harvard University.
Described as socially awkward, Sinedu had a difficult time making friends. She wrote dozens of letters to other Harvard students whose numbers she retrieved from the phone book. In the letters, Sinedu described feeling lonely and isolated. She begged for someone, anyone, to be her friend;
“I am desperate. As far as I can remember, my life has been hellish. Year after year, I become lonelier and lonelier. I am like a person who can’t swim, (choking) in a river. All you have to do is give me a hand.”
A Harvard law student responded to Sinedu’s letter but when she received a response back she began to feel uneasy. She described Sinedu’s writings as bizarre and decided to end further communication. Several other recipients of the letter found it quite disturbing as well and turned them over to college officials.
Although the letter was deemed to have been read both by the Dean and another university official, Sinedu was never spoken to, it was filed away and quickly forgotten about. No one intervened. No one provided Sinedu with the help she so clearly needed.
After her freshmen year, Sinedu’s roommate told her she would no longer be rooming with her. For the next two years, Sinedu’s roommate was a Vietnamese student named Trang Phuong Ho. Trang was described as well-liked and outgoing.
Soon enough, Sinedu too became fond of Trang. She wanted to be around her as much as possible and would become irate and distressed when Trang would ask for space. Sinedu’s neediness eventually drove Trang away and soon enough Trang too informed Sinedu she would no longer be her roommate.
It would be an understatement to say Sinedu did not handle the news well.
In addition to being bullied for the majority of her childhood, Sinedu was incredibly unhappy at Harvard. She had no friends, she was unable to keep up academically speaking, her confidence was at an all-time low and now two of her roommates had chosen to distance themselves from her.
Feeling abandoned, Sinedu sent Trang a letter stating;
“I thought we were going to do stuff together. You’ll always have a family to go to, and I am going to have no one.”
Sometime in May of 1995, Sinedu purchased a rope and two knives. She mailed a photograph of herself to The Harvard Crimson, a daily student newspaper. In an anonymous note, Sinedu wrote, “Keep this picture. There will soon be a very juicy story involving this woman.”
On the morning of May 28, 1995, twenty-year-old Sinedu walked into Trang’s bedroom and stabbed her fourty-five times with a hunting knife while she slept. She then attacked twenty-six-year-old Thao Nguyen who was visiting Trang for the weekend, cutting her several times as she attempted to save her friend.
Thao fled the room and ran into the courtyard. Wounded and bleeding, she screamed for help until her cries woke other residents who then phoned the police. Meanwhile, Sinedu barricaded the door and hanged herself in the bathroom using the rope and the shower curtain pole.
Thao survived her injuries. Trang and Sinedu did not. Sinedu was the first student at Harvard to murder another.
Sinedu was buried in Ethiopia. After her death, her diaries were discovered in which she wrote of her declining mental health, her repeated unfulfilled attempts to gain psychiatric help and of her obsession with Trang, whom she considered her best friend.
Sinedu stated she was unable to emotionally connect with anyone and that she had always been lonely. She titled her dairies “My Small Book of Social Rules” and “Amazing Improved Events and How I Could Have Solved Them.” Some were simply named “Depression.”
One student stated Sinedu’s shyness held her back from making friends, describing her as “totally isolated, always by herself,” another stated she was, “a nice, polite and sweet girl. Whenever I saw her, she’d always be smiling.”
Trang escaped Vietnam at age ten with her father and sister on a fishing boat. Trang too was valedictorian of her high school. She was an impeccable human being; she volunteered at a homeless shelter, worked in a cancer lab in Boston and tutored refugees on the side. Trang was a premed student at Harvard whose dream was to become a pediatrician.
Trang’s family filed a wrongful death suit against Harvard University, stating the school did not do enough to prevent Trang’s death. They claimed the university knew of Sinedu’s deteriorating level of sanity. University officials responded Sinedu never indicated she was in need of any help.
The outcome of the lawsuit is unknown.
Members of The Harvard Crimson advocated for change regarding how the university responded to students who suffered from mental health issues. The newspaper reported it would often take ten to fifteen days for students to see mental health professionals due to understaffing and the university’s health plan did not cover long-term therapy for students in need. In the year prior to Sinedu’s suicide, three other students also took their own lives.
Within the next five years due to increased pressure for change, Harvard tripled counselling staff, increased emergency hours, and placed mental health liaisons in each house. Harvard University established The Trang Ho Public Service Fellowship, a financial aid scholarship in Trang’s memory.
In her valedictorian speech Trang stated;
“You decide where your life is going, whether you are going to make a difference or not. For me, I will make many differences.”
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