The family of an international student who officials say was killed by her boyfriend has been awarded $5 million in a settlement with the University of Utah.
Haoyu Wang injected 19-year-old Zhifan Dong, an international student from China, with a lethal dose of heroin and fentanyl on Feb. 11, 2022, according to a July news release from the University of Utah.
An attorney representing Wang previously entered a not guilty plea on his behalf, NBC News reported. The attorney told the outlet in July that “we are prepared to move forward to trial and to vigorously defend against the claims made against him to a jury of his peers” and that “there are mental health issues concerning everyone involved in this case that will need to be addressed prior to trial.”
McClatchy News has reached out to the attorney for further comment.
Wang remains incarcerated and is awaiting trial, KSL reported.
In a settlement agreement reached with Dong’s family on Feb. 21, the university acknowledged “shortcomings in the response of its housing and residential education team to the complex situation” that led up to Dong’s death.
“Our campus continues to mourn the death of Zhifan Dong,” university president Taylor Randall said in a statement about the settlement. “Today’s settlement demonstrates our seriousness in honoring Zhifan Dong and reaffirming our commitment to the ongoing work of addressing all aspects of student safety.”
In its July 19 release, the university said that it had addressed the “deficiencies,” including “insufficient and unprofessional communications,” a ”need for clarity” in housing staff training and a delay in staff members notifying police and other university leaders about warning signs of intimate partner violence.
“When it comes to protecting our students, our job is never done,” Randall said in a letter sent to students, according to the university’s release. “I’ve challenged university senior leaders to leave no stone unturned as we seek additional ways to enhance safety.”
No complaint was filed against the university, but attorneys representing Dong’s family said in a statement that the settlement represented a step toward justice for Dong.
“The Dong Family is grateful to close this chapter of their journey for justice for their daughter,” Brian Stewart, an attorney with Parker & McConkie, said in a statement. “They sincerely hope that Zhifan’s memory will inspire others to help prevent intimate partner violence and save lives on campus and in all our communities.”
The Utah legislature must approve the settlement before the money can be paid to the family, according to the University of Utah. Settlements over $1 million must be approved by the governor and the state legislature, according to the Utah state code. The governor has already approved the settlement, according to the university.
Dong was found dead at a Quality Inn in Salt Lake City on Feb. 11, 2022, according to The Salt Lake Tribune.
Wang, who the outlet identified as Dong’s boyfriend, had sent an email to a University of Utah employee saying that he and Dong were planning to use drugs to “have a painless death” and would be dead before anyone found them, according to the outlet.
Wang, who later told police that he’d bought the drugs on the “dark net” using bitcoin, said both he and Dong took the drugs, and then Dong “became unresponsive,” according to The Salt Lake Tribune.
He said he noticed she was having trouble breathing, and he injected her with heroin with the “intent to kill her and relieve her suffering,” ABC4 reported, citing court records.
In a timeline of events released by the university, housing staff were delayed in notifying university police and other campus authorities of “indications that there may have been an active intimate partner violence situation involving the two students.”
Salt Lake City police had previously arrested Wang on Jan. 12 after they said he hit Dong in the head during an argument, according to the university.
The incident was not reported to the university’s Office of Equal Opportunity, Affirmative Action, and Title IX; Office of the Dean of Students or the campus police, as required by university policy, the statement says.
“University Safety leaders” did not learn about the history of violence until Dong was reported missing on Feb. 8, according to the university.
She was found dead at the Quality Inn on Feb. 11 by university police who pinged her cellphone, according to ABC4.
“No life should ever end in such tragic circumstances,” the university’s chief safety officer Keith Squires said in a statement. “As soon as our police learned of the intimate partner violence between these two students, our officers launched a comprehensive and deliberate search for Zhifan Dong and Haoyu Wang in coordination with Salt Lake City Police. We remain saddened that we were unable to locate them in time.”
In 2020, the University of Utah settled a lawsuit for $10.5 million and agreed to donate $3 million to the foundation honoring a student athlete who authorities said was killed by her ex-boyfriend, according to ABC News.
Lauren McCluskey, 21, was found shot to death in a car in 2018, McClatchy News previously reported. Her former boyfriend, Melvin Rowland, 37, then died by suicide.
In a complaint filed against the university, McCluskey’s parents said that university officials dismissed their daughter’s requests for help before she was killed, according to ABC. Then-university president Ruth V. Watkins said during a press conference at the time that the university had “failed” McCluskey and her family, the outlet reported.
Watkins also committed to improving campus safety, according to WGAU Radio.
’Her short life on earth was not in vain’
Dong, who was her parents’ only child, was a “beautiful and capable young woman,” they said in a statement that was translated into English from Mandarin and shared by their lawyers.
She was a good friend and a loving daughter who had many “respectable traits,” the statement says.
“In these short nineteen years, she lived a rich and fulfilling life,” the statement says. “… Her short life on earth was not in vain.”
Her parents said that they don’t want to believe that Dong is really dead and that they sometimes feel she is still with them.
“The loss makes us very sad, leaving us only endless sadness and longing, and too many regrets,” the statement says. “When we shed tears and choked up over the pictures of our daughter, her lovely smiling face and familiar voice replayed in our minds over and over again.”
They also said they hoped their daughter’s memory could be an inspiration to others to help prevent intimate partner violence both on campuses and in communities.
“We hope she will inspire other victims to seek help and to leave their abusers,” the statement says.
As part of the settlement agreement, the university said it will establish a memorial on campus in Dong’s honor.
If you are experiencing domestic violence and need someone to talk to, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline for support at 1-800-799-7233 or text “START” to 88788.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health or suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800 273-8255 or text the Crisis Text Line at 741741.