Indian-American students’ deaths remembered five years later - News

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Indian-American students’ deaths remembered five years later

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Posted: Thursday, January 31, 2013 10:29 pm

On the cusp of two University students’ seemingly bright futures, tragedy struck.

On Dec. 13, 2007, international Ph.D. students Chandrasekhar Reddy Komma and Kiran Kumar Allam were tailed by two or three men to the latter’s home at the Edward Gay Apartments near the Tiger Band Hall. The stalkers followed the two men upon entering the apartment — binding Komma with a computer cable as Allam possibly attempted to escape.

They were both shot dead.

The five-year-old case is still alive today, though, as the University dedicated a remembrance garden to Komma and Allam in December and motion hearings for their two suspected killers will begin this month.

“I didn’t know about it until the next day,” said Maureen Hewitt, manager of LSU’s International Cultural Center. “It was a terrific shock. You don’t like making generalizations about these things, but [Indian-Americans] seem to be an extraordinarily gentle people. So, it was just a great shock that this particular violence happened to this particular group.”

LSU Mourns

The University held a candlelight vigil on the Parade Ground where then-LSU System President William “Bill” Jenkins addressed the community from the steps of the Memorial Tower. Jenkins — once an international student from South Africa studying at the University of Missouri — eventually stepped down to join the crowd to show he felt its grief, Hewitt said.

“I just couldn’t imagine how my family could have felt and how my wife could have felt. I could relate to that even more so because of my own experience as a visiting student who had studied in the United States,” Jenkins said. “We really mourned their loss — mourned the circumstances. The University came together in universal sympathy for what had happened.”

The assembly marched from the Parade Grounds to Allam’s former apartment, where it deposited candles in remembrance. A diverse mix of people attended the ceremony, Hewitt said.

Two of a Kind

Allam and Komma hailed from Andhra Pradesh, a state in southeastern India. Each left behind a widow after their killings. They had each passed their general exams for their respective Ph.D. degrees earlier in 2007.

Eventually, the University honored Allam and Komma with posthumous degrees in 2008. The University’s leaders believed that the remaining degree requirements would have been achieved had Allam and Komma not been killed.

Allam, 34, joined LSU’s Chemistry Graduate Program in 2005 to pursue his Ph.D. Komma, 31, obtained a Master’s Degree in horticulture from LSU in 2003 and immediately transferred to the Ph.D. program in biochemistry in the University’s  Department of Biological Sciences.

For two years, Allam participated in a research group at the University and served as a teaching assistant for chemistry courses.

A passion for research burned inside of Allam, according to Graca Vicente, Charles H. Barré Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and Allam’s mentor. Vicente elaborated on that in an email that Hewitt shared with The Daily Reveille.

Allam’s research had already resulted in one publication, and he sought to follow a career in research “to help others survive currently untreatable diseases, such as malignant brain tumors,” according to a letter written by Jenkins, then-acting Chancellor, to John Lombardi, then-LSU System President.

“Kiran was truly passionate about his research project at LSU,” Vicente wrote. “Kiran was an extremely caring person. He always had a smile and kind words to share, and he loved people, in particular, children. He was very friendly and encouraging to others — a true friend. He will forever be missed by all that knew him.”

Komma’s research involved determining the three-dimensional structure of a catalytic domain of a tyrosine phosphatase, a major step in comparing these enzymes and their functioning. He was attempting to turn proteins into crystals so he could capture a “picture” of them, according to an email written to Hewitt from Matthew Gilbert — a colleague, poker partner and backyard basketball teammate of Komma’s — describing the aspiring scientist.

“The field of science he was in requires a lot of trial-and-error,” Gilbert wrote. “You set up an experiment — or hundreds of experiments — let them run, and see if it works. If not, try again. Towards the end of his time at LSU, he was making progress and would get excited about it, saying, ‘I got a crystal!’ That’s a very genuine, intellectual, scientific inquisitiveness that not many possess.”

Komma’s research resulted in a co-authorship on a publication in the “Journal of Biological Chemistry.”

“Joyful” was the appropriate word to describe Komma, Gilbert said. When the two would meet up — for whatever reason — Komma would dress his face with a “big happy grin,” Gilbert remembered.

“He always looked as though he was about to tell you the best joke he ever heard,” Gilbert said. “He made you feel welcome and important. ... I realized later that I believe Komma had a very natural, and almost super-human, way of seeing above and beyond things that most people allow to cloud their perceptions. He never thought of me as the ‘American guy’ or the ‘white guy,’ which is why he was so casual and comfortable celebrating Thanksgiving with my family, or never thought twice about having me over for poker, basketball, spicy Indian food parties. He just liked people for who they were and could see through the small things. I wish more people were like that.”

The Garden

On Dec. 13, 2012 — the five-year anniversary of the students’ passing — the Komma and Allam Remembrance Garden, outside of the International Cultural Center on Dalrymple Drive, was dedicated to their memory.

Beautiful weather graced the ceremony that day, Hewitt said. Mayor-President Melvin “Kip” Holden spoke at the dedication, along with Vicente, Hewitt and Vamsi Boyapati, a close friend of both students, who closed with a poem by Sri Aurobindo titled “Cosmic Consciousness.”

Ideas for the garden began stirring in spring 2008, and construction began in summer 2011, Hewitt said. The finishing touch — a metal globe crowning the base of a fountain — was added in fall 2012.

Hewitt said plans are in the works to add benches around the memorial, along with a plaque containing a description of Allam and Komma. Additionally, a scenic overlook will be constructed near the edge of the lake for people wishing to reflect further. A path will be paved between the globe statue and the overlook.

The Suspects

No motive was ever discovered for the killings of the two students, Hewitt said; however, two suspects, Casey Jermaine Gathers, 24, and Michael Jermaine Lewis, 23, both of Baton Rouge, were arrested on May 22, 2008, in Vermilion Parish. They were charged with two counts of second-degree murder in the deaths of Komma and Allam.

Devin Parker, a third suspect, 23, of Baton Rouge, pleaded guilty in June to armed robbery and accessory charges in the case. He agreed to testify in future legal proceedings.

Motion hearings for Gathers and Lewis will begin Feb. 8.

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