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‘Please, God, give me my angel back’: Mother joins others to mourn murdered U of C grad

Shaoxiong “Dennis” Zheng’s mother, Li Rong, was among the last to speak at her son’s memorial service Thursday. “They say that someone who shines everywhere is an angel,” she said in Chinese. “Please, God, give my angel back.”

University of Chicago students protest for campus safety following the death of graduate student Shaoxiong “Dennis” Zheng at the main quadrangle at University of Chicago in Hyde Park, Tuesday afternoon, Nov. 16, 2021. A memorial service was held on the campus Thursday.
University of Chicago students protest for campus safety following the death of graduate student Shaoxiong “Dennis” Zheng at the main quadrangle at University of Chicago in Hyde Park, Tuesday afternoon, Nov. 16, 2021. A memorial service was held on the campus Thursday.
Mark Capapas/Sun-Times,

Hundreds of students from the University of Chicago and others filled the school’s historic chapel Thursday to attend the memorial service of a 24-year-old recent graduate who was killed during a brazen daytime mugging near the Hyde Park campus.

The hour-long service at U of C’s Rockefeller Memorial Chapel began with a photo montage that showed Shaoxiong “Dennis” Zheng go from a smiling toddler, to a Chengdu high schooler, to a graduate student posing with friends on the Chicago lakefront.

Zheng’s mother, Li Rong, whose first trip to the United States was for the memorial service, was among the last to speak, her words expressing deep mourning and outrage.

“They say that someone who shines everywhere is an angel,” she said in Chinese. “Please, God, give my angel back.

“Countless mothers and families are standing by. We all share the same grief and anger, and call for severe punishment for the murderer.”

Opening slide of livestream of University of Chicago’s memorial service on Thursday, November 18 for Shaoxiong “Dennis” Zheng, a recent University graduate who was killed on November 9.
Opening slide of livestream of University of Chicago’s memorial service on Thursday, November 18 for Shaoxiong “Dennis” Zheng, a recent University graduate who was killed on November 9.

Zheng completed his master’s degree in statistics at the university in June, and was shot by an alleged armed robber on Nov. 9 in the 900 block of East 54th Place — just a few blocks from the chapel.

Alton Spann, 18, was arrested for Zheng’s murder three days later and ordered held without bond.

Friends and U of C faculty described Zheng as a dedicated student who had a zest for life. He was also a devoted table tennis player and enjoyed photography “though he was less captivated by the technical aspects of capturing images than the simple act of admiring the world’s beauty,” a news release from the university said.

“He wanted to savor every moment of life,” Zheng’s girlfriend, Shirley Cai, a graduate political science student, was quoted as saying in the release. “The sky, the sunset, the stars— he just wanted to keep it.

“Meeting him was one of the most fortunate things that has ever happened to me. I was so lucky to be with him. He was the kind of person I want to be.”

Dan Nicolae, chair of the statistics department, said Zheng was a particularly bright and engaged student, recalling the time he suggested a problem in network theory for Zheng to work on as part of his research.

“He politely listened, acknowledged my idea, took notes on the books and the papers I suggested he read,” Nicolae said.

“He came back weeks later to report on his progress: he read a couple of advanced books, different than the ones I suggested, he took an online course...and he made significant problem on a research question that was very different than the one I suggested, one that was more challenging and better suited to his research interests.”

Zheng’s murder prompted protests on the South Side campus, where two other students or recent graduates have been killed this year. While Thursday’s memorial service did not feature any demonstrations near the chapel, a memorial pile of flowers, signs and candles at the crime scene had grown noticeably.

A GoFundMe campaign to raise money in Zheng’s name totaled more than $300,000 by Thursday evening.

A memorial for University of Chicago graduate Shaoxiong “Dennis” Zheng is set up at the 5400 block of S. Ellis Ave. in the Hyde Park Neighborhood, Friday, Nov. 12, 2021.
A memorial for University of Chicago graduate Shaoxiong “Dennis” Zheng is set up at the 5400 block of S. Ellis Ave. in the Hyde Park Neighborhood, Friday, Nov. 12, 2021.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Before he was killed, surveillance cameras captured Zheng standing on the sidewalk around 2 p.m. when a black Mustang pulled up and Spann hopped out, holding a gun, prosecutors said.

Spann allegedly went on to demand that Zheng hand over his belongings, and the two men struggled briefly before Zheng tried to run away. Spann then fired a single shot that struck Zheng in the chest, prosecutors said. A bystander tended to Zheng before paramedics arrived.

After the shooting, prosecutors said Spann took Zheng’s computer and cellphone and pawned them for $100. Spann, who is on parole for a 2019 armed robbery, was carrying two guns when he was arrested in the 1400 block of North Sedgwick last week, prosecutors said.

In January, doctoral student Yiran Fan was gunned down, apparently at random, by Jason Nightengale, who would go on to shoot six other people — two of them fatally — during an hours-long shooting spree that began in Hyde Park and ended when Nightengale was killed in a shootout with police in Evanston.

Then in the summer, undergraduate student Max Lewis, 20, was killed by a stray bullet that went through the window of a Green Line train.