By R.T. Watson
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Police investigating the shooting deaths of two University of Southern California graduate students from China posted a $125,000 reward on Friday for information that would help detectives solve the double murder.
Two days after Ming Qu and classmate Ying Wu, both 23, were shot while sitting in Qu's car in a residential neighborhood near the USC campus, homicide detectives were still piecing together clues to identify a suspect in their slaying.
Evidence suggested the pair were gunned down by a single assailant who approached the car, a 2003 BMW, as the victims sat talking in the vehicle at about 1 a.m. Wednesday, after Qu had driven Wu back to the house where she rented a room.
The twin slayings sent shockwaves through USC, a private university in Los Angeles that boasts the largest number of international students of any American institution of higher education. That number totaled 8,615 last year, the largest portion of which, 1,951, were Chinese.
USC would pay the $125,000 reward, police said.
The murders also sparked a debate over whether the school provided adequate security measures in neighborhoods adjacent to the campus where many students live. Police and university officials said violent crime in the area has diminished in recent years.
One member of Wu's host family, with whom she had lived since June, said the two slain electrical engineering students had spent an increasing amount of time together and seemed to be in the early stages of a budding romance.
Jacqueline Hamilton, in whose home Wu lived with two other Chinese students, described her as "a very determined young woman that enjoyed cooking and spent a lot of time in the library."
Michael L. Jackson, USC vice president of student affairs, said Wu was from China's Jilin province, and Qu from Hunan.
Police said Qu's car was double-parked in the street outside the house with the engine running and the hazard lights flashing when the pair were struck by two or three gunshots fired through the vehicle's driver's side front window.
Wu was found slumped over in the passenger seat, reportedly shot in the chest. Qu, said by local media accounts to have been struck in the head, staggered out of the car to the porch of a nearby home where he collapsed.
A witness reported seeing a person in dark clothing running from the scene, and a black sedan was observed pulling away from the area at about the same time, police told a news conference.
Police also said that some unspecified "property" of the victims was taken, suggesting robbery might have been a factor. But detectives stressed they have yet to rule anything out in terms of a motive, including whether street gangs were involved.
Still, Deputy Police Chief Pat Gannon said there was no indication that politics or any political activities on the part of the students was a factor.
"There is nothing to suggest that, and if I am a betting man, that is not even close to what this will end up being," Gannon told Reuters, adding that the two students were not known to be involved in any extra-curricular activities.
"We have been told by friends and associates that (they) were serious about their studies and often studied late into the night and used these late-night meetings as an opportunity to talk outside the house," he said.
Hamilton said the tragic irony of Wu's murder was that she had never seemed happier than in the last three weeks as her relationship with Qu blossomed.
"I don't know if you can officially call it dating, but she and Ming had started seeing each other a lot and were at that stage in a relationship where you really find that person interesting and can't bear to part," she said.
(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)