By Dan Whitcomb
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A convicted felon charged with robbing four University of Southern California (USC) students at gunpoint earlier this week has been eliminated as a suspect in the murders of two graduate students from China, police said on Friday.
Jeremy Hendricks, 24, was charged on Friday in Wednesday's robbery near USC's fraternity row. Police initially said they were probing possible links between the two crimes and testing the gun used in the robbery for a connection.
Graduate students Ming Qu and Wing Yu, both 23 and apparently involved in a budding relationship, were shot to death last week as they sat talking in Qu's car near USC, sending shockwaves through the private university.
The murders sparked a debate over whether USC provided adequate security measures in neighborhoods adjacent to the Los Angeles campus where many students live.
But a Los Angeles police spokesman said on Friday that detectives had determined that Hendricks was not the killer.
"We don't believe he is involved with the double homicide," Commander Andrew Smith told Reuters, adding that detectives were working around the clock to solve the murders.
Hendricks, a reputed member of the Acacia Crips street gang, also known as "G Black," is accused of pulling a gun on the group of students as they walked near campus, and demanding their belongings.
Three of them threw items into a backpack held by Hendricks, prosecutors said, while the fourth hid behind a parked car. When Hendricks walked away, the students flagged down a campus security officer, who gave chase and ultimately shot him in the leg, authorities said.
Hendricks was charged with second-degree robbery, attempted robbery, assault with a firearm, possession of a firearm by a felon and carrying a loaded firearm. He faces more than 50 years in prison if convicted.
Evidence suggested the two slain Chinese graduate students were gunned down by a single assailant who approached their car, a 2003 BMW, as the victims sat talking inside at about 1 a.m. last Wednesday.
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 have said.
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 out any motives and whether street gangs were involved.
The city and university have put up a combined $200,000 in rewards for information that would help solve the case.
(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Paul Simao)