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NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—On a street better known for its college parties than gun violence, a nineteen-year-old Raritan Valley Community College student was murdered Thursday evening, fatally shot in the chest and shoulder while hanging out at a friend’s house.
It’s unclear exactly what led up to the killing of Joshua “Chino” Zhou, but authorities said it “was not random,” and that the shooter “intended to rob the victim.”
Just a few houses down from the crime scene, next to a graffiti-tagged wooden fence, a large sign affixed to the front of a home advertised a rental property priced at $2,100 a month and “legal for 5 people” to live in just two bedrooms.
Robinson Street has increasingly become more popular among college student renters, who prefer it precisely because it is not a main drag and located in a relatively safe area of the city. The one-block long, one-way street has about 25 homes on it and an old Hungarian meat market at the corner.
“This street is like a party street so there’s not really fights,” said Robinson Street resident Brittany Bozzini on Sunday, adding that during the day the quiet one-way street was typically vibrant and inviting, with young men playing football in the street and residents chatting on porches.
But the neighborhood is still reeling from the news of Zhou’s killing.
“It makes you want to double-lock and bolt your doors,” said Bozzini, a Rutgers University junior spending her second consecutive school year living in the off-campus neighborhood south of Easton Avenue that has become dominated by college students over the past decade.
She said that she had never before heard gunshots in the neighborhood and that news of the shooting made her and her housemates feel “paranoid” about crime in the community.
And, yes, she is now locking both the top and bottom locks at her first-floor apartment.
Guitar music emanated from an apartment above Bozzini’s, a reminder of the care-free attitude most residents on the block share. On another block nearby, young residents used their basement to host a yard sale and art auction.
“Occasionally, the wrestling boys or the hockey boys will throw a party,” said the hostess of the event, but otherwise the neighborhood is tame.
Often, bands can be heard jamming in apartments or basements, providing a fitting soundtrack to the otherwise quiet neighborhood. But on Thursday evening, the soundtrack was very different.
That night, the sounds of police vehicles enveloped the neighborhood as New Brunswick cop cars swarmed the area after police received a 911 call to report a man running with a gun through the highly populated area at 9:27pm.
Police radios squawked: “Do we have a direction where this guy was running to?” one officer asks.
A dispatcher responds, “Alright, they’re not giving me any information. They keep asking the person who saw the male with the [gun], he’s not giving me any of the answers that I need.”
About a minute later, police found the mortally wounded young man.
“Yeah, we gotta clear the house,” said an officer over the police radio.
“EMS for a gunshot victim!” called out another officer.
Thirty seconds later, police coordinated to stop witnesses from leaving the house: “Just hold on to all those kids that are trying to leave the house,” one officer says.
“Wait, wait, wait!” another officer can be heard shouting over his radio.
At about 9:50pm, another crime scene developed a few blocks away around a “small-caliber gun” found that authorities believed to be connected to the shooting.
Police also requested that a “victim,” potentially someone who also had the gun pointed at them, be transported to identify a “possible suspect” found near Lorain Street.
Dawonne Cooper, a 22-year-old who sources say was a member of the crips street gang, was that man. He was charged the following day with homicide and remains in Middlesex County Jail tonight, held on $1 million bail with no 10% option.
Police radios squawked again around 10pm, as police began to transport three witnesses to police headquarters.
“Hey, once those guys get in there, all the witnesses, make sure everyone is separate and do what you have to do to make sure they keep quiet please,” said a seargent over the airwaves to detectives.
About nine witnesses in total spent the night at police headquarters answering questions. A neighbor told NewBrunswickToday.com that he broke down crying in an elevator following an 11-hour interrogation when investigators informed him that Zhou had passed away
New Brunswick police cars and officers remained at the Robinson Street scene collecting bags of evidence well into Friday afternoon.
Later that day, the neighbor described seeing Zhou just before he died. He said “two shady guys” followed the victim into the backyard behind 44 Robinson shortly before the shots rang out.
By Sunday, all of the residents of the home where the murder went down had moved out for good. The two-story house was purchased by Mark Goldblatt and Rachel Barlev-Lerner of Edison for $280,500 in November 2008.
A small blue bicycle remained locked to the porch, which looked like most in the neighborhood: adorned by a few pieces of garbage, an empty water bottle, and an empty beer bottle.
A small American flag that had seen better days drooped downward from a wrought iron support on the porch.
In the backyard, a broken mirror and chair sat next to several garbage cans and cinderblock seating surrounded a firepit. The large metal doors to the basement where Zhou was killed were closed.
A maintenance man who was seen cleaning out the residence said the place was messy and the former residents liked to party, but they were “really nice guys” who he felt sorry for.
But not everyone in the neighborhood had positive things to say about the tenants at 44 Robinson. One man who lived nearby said one of the residents pulled a knife on one of his guests during an argument.
The neighbor said that, when he saw Zhou’s body removed from the house Thursday night, he assumed the same man with a knife was the culprit until he learned more details.
Another resident of the block who wished to remain anonymous said that multiple drugs, including cocaine, were being sold out of the house, and suspected that probably had something to do with the shooting.
Lee Seltzer lives just a few houses away from the scene of the crime. He said he wasn’t surprised that a violent crime happened on his block.
Seltzer, a Rutgers senior, said that crime is quite common in his experience, even in student-dominated parts of the city. He said that his house was robbed last year when he lived on Wyckoff Street, much closer to the Rutgers campus.
He said he also will be making extra efforts to keep his doors locked and avoid being “oblivious” to his surroundings.
“I still like it here, but it is a wake up call… There’s positives and negatives to living everywhere, it’s just a fact of urban life.”
The Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office said today they were actively investigating Zhou’s killing. Investigators were seen conducting interviews Saturday near the site where police found the handgun.
Dan Swern and Christa Cillaroto are both graduates of Rutgers who live together at 5 Lorain Street, where police found the handgun wrapped in a white t-shirt on a small patch of grass that constitutes the home’s front yard.
Lorain Street is located off the beaten path, a dead-end residential block consisting of a dozen houses off Central Avenue. The couple said that the population of college students and recent graduates has steadily increased in the quiet neighborhood since they moved in four years ago.
Both Swern and Cillaroto told NewBrunswickToday.com that Zhou’s killing was the first instance of gun violence in their neighborhood that they had heard about.
But they also said the community has seen its share of crime. For instance, Swern said that all four of the hubcaps on his Toyota Camry were stolen the day after the shooting.
Cillaroto recalled once witnessing a beating in the street where a person was punched, kicked, and tasered by a large group before she called the police and the crowd dispersed.
Meanwhile, at Gleason Funeral Home in Franklin Township, over 150 people mourned at an emotional wake for the victim.
Joshua Zhou graduated from Franklin High School in 2011 and began taking classes full-time at RVCC that fall. This semester, he became a part-time student, according to a spokeswoman for the community college.
Zhou was studying business and pursuing a career in the music industry.
“Not only is Josh’s family torn apart by this unexpected loss, but a whole entire town. This is truly heart breaking,” said Tymirah Scott, a high school classmate who attended the funeral.
“My Franklin family and I are all in a great state of shock and confusion because Josh was not involved in a violent lifestyle. He had big dreams and an amazing talent, and he was incredibly funny. Everyone loved Chino and when I say he was everyone’s dear friend, I mean everyone,” Scott said.
Based on internet posting in the wake of his death, Zhou was a popular and well-known member of the local community.
Twitter user @SazDiggity posted condolences on the social media website: “All my Franklin folk and friends of Chino in general, try to be there to support each other in these times. We lost a brother.”
He also posted a tribute to Zhou on his blog, where he said, “We made music, formed a strong friendship, and more importantly formed a brotherhood.”
User @celseaclassic called Zhou, “one of the sweetest people to have waked on earth.”
“May your beautiful soul rest in peace. You will be missed.”
User @ShayPachecho tweeted, “Another warrior done fighting, time for him to rest. Rip chino.” Franklin High School’s mascot is the Warriors.
Zhou did not live at the home where he was shot, but he was a frequent guest there, according to neighbors. He was outgoing enough that he managed to make a good impression on several of them.
A next-door neighbor said, “I wasn’t really that close with him. I knew him through my good friends. But he was always a happy kid, excited about the little things that matter in life.”
“He had a good understanding of who he really was and was very self-confident. He was a happy kid with lots of good friends. May he rest in peace.”
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate, a community organizer, and a former independent candidate for mayor of New Brunswick.