Yaolin Wang’s family and friends lined up to see her for the last time. In a sudden outburst, her mother threw herself on the casket and tried to lift her daughter’s high collar, wanting to see the injuries.
Her other daughter Jielin recalls this story and said she pulled her mom back.
“Mom, don’t,” she said.
“Just let me comb through her hair one more time,” Yaolin’s mother said through tears.
When friends first heard the news that Yaolin, a 21-year-old transfer student from China, was dead, they assumed Daniel Xiao was her killer, even before police confirmed.
A close friend heard her crying when Daniel locked her out of her apartment. A roommate in Seattle saw the welts he left on her body. A friend in Bloomington let her stay in her apartment when she needed shelter.
When her friends put the bits of information they each had together, the image of an abuser came into focus. Now they helplessly relive the moments that could have kept Yaolin alive.
Police first responded to a 911 call from the Stratum apartments near College Mall. Daniel’s body had been found in a stairwell. When police arrived, they discovered Yaolin’s body on a nearby patio.
From the beginning, officers worked under the assumption the case was a murder-suicide. Police were initially led to believe the two were in a “mutually romantic relationship,” said Capt. Joe Qualters of the Bloomington Police Department during press time.
As the investigation continued, police began to uncover evidence that led them to believe Daniel was forcing the relationship.
“This other side emerged about how controlling he was,” Qualters said.
Yaolin and Daniel met earlier this year during their spring semester, according to a police statement. Both were students at North Seattle College. Soon after they met, Daniel became Yaolin’s second roommate.
Accounts from close friends detail a pattern of abuse in the months following. Yaolin never told her family or the police.
Daniel arrived in Bloomington on Aug. 22, according to a police statement, where he stayed in Yaolin’s apartment. He left again on Sept. 19, saying he intended to go back to school.
Daniel reappeared in Bloomington unannounced on Sept. 30. Later that evening, she was dead, allegedly stabbed to death by Daniel.
“I pray to God that she didn’t suffer,” said Eric Powell, co-owner of The Funeral Chapel of Powell and Deckard.
Powell was responsible for dressing Yaolin’s body for the funeral. He said it was apparent her body had been through a lot of trauma. But the details of her wounds are unknown — the Monroe County coroner failed to respond to multiple requests for comment.
After seeing Yaolin’s body, Powell went home and hugged his own daughter. He thanked God he still could, knowing Yaolin’s father no longer could do the same.
A pattern of abuse
Gloria, Yaolin’s roommate in Seattle, saw Daniel harass Yaolin and force himself into her room against her will. She heard the fighting in Yaolin’s room. When the noise died down, Daniel would come out and act like nothing happened.
Gloria, who would not give her last name, never suspected Daniel was abusive until the night he pushed and threatened her.
That night, the yelling started again. Except this time, Gloria could hear someone being pushed on to a dresser and Yaolin’s screaming. She said the fight no longer seemed normal.
Gloria walked up to Yaolin’s door and knocked.
When Yaolin opened the door, Gloria could see a raised red mark on Yaolin’s forehead and finger marks on her waist. “It’s OK,” Yaolin said to her. “Everything is fine.”
Daniel appeared and seemed irritated. His expression was unfamiliar and scared Gloria. Still, she told him she couldn’t tolerate such loud, physical violence. Daniel shoved Gloria with both hands.
She was shocked, scared and then cried out loud. Yaolin jumped in front of her, protecting her from Daniel.
When she said she wanted to call the police, Daniel threatened “Don’t you dare call police, my family is powerful back in China.”
The police were never called.
Yaolin tried everything she could think of to get rid of Daniel. Knowing little about the American police system, Yaolin had told her friends she would rather tolerate the abuse, knowing the day would soon come when she could leave Seattle and Daniel behind.
That day came on July 18. At around 7 p.m., she was packing for a trip back to China. But Daniel wouldn’t let her leave.
She messaged Meghan Wu, one of her closest friends who also lived in Seattle, on the chatting app WeChat, “Help me, he won’t let me leave for China.”
So Daniel took away her phone.
After a couple of hours, Yaolin took her phone back, stole away to the bathroom and messaged her friends for help.
When Meghan got home and finally saw Yaolin’s messages, it was around midnight.
She called a cab and dragged a friend along with her to get Yaolin. When they arrived, Yaolin moved her suitcases out of her room one by one.
After Yaolin got in the cab, Daniel started calling her. She picked up.
“If I don’t leave, are you going to kill me?” Meghan remembers her saying into the phone.
By the time they got back to Meghan’s place, it was 4 a.m. No one said much. Yaolin hung up another call from Daniel.
“I have to go back,” she said to Meghan.
Yaolin told Meghan she had left a suitcase at the apartment. Daniel said she would never see it again.
No one seems to know what happened after Yaolin went back to the apartment, except that she was able to get on a plane to the Beijing airport.
Her father hadn’t seen his daughter in a while. He was shocked when he first saw how bony Yaolin was when she walked up to him, her father said. Yaolin rushed into his chest.
“How did you become so thin?” he asked. She began to cry.
“Did you miss home?”
“Did you have a fight with your classmates?”
She looked up, hesitated a moment.
“Nothing, now. I’m going to the new university. Everything will be fine now.”
Xu Gao, who shared a hotel room with Yaolin when they first arrived at IU, overheard a man on the phone, pleading with Yaolin to let him come to Bloomington.
She heard him promising that he would behave himself. So Yaolin caved, Xu said, and agreed to pick him up from the airport on Aug. 22.
Knowing Yaolin wanted to get rid of Daniel, Xu asked why she agreed to allow him to come to Bloomington. Yaolin didn’t expect things to be different. Yaolin told Xu she hoped when Daniel broke his promises, she would have a valid excuse to get rid of him.
Two weeks after Daniel’s arrival the abuse came back.
On Sept. 10, Daniel locked Yaolin out of her apartment. She messaged Susan Zhang, her roommate in Bloomington, saying, “I’m going crazy.”
Yaolin wanted to ask for the leasing office’s help. Her roommate discouraged her from making a scene. Yaolin called the office anyway, and someone came to disable the deadbolt on her door, Susan said.
Daniel was sitting in the living room, acting like nothing happened. She messaged her roommate again.
“I will call police after I get back from school tonight,” Yaolin told Susan in a message. “Even if the result is bad, even if I have to go back to China, even if I have to leave I will call police.”
Susan tried persuade Yaolin not to call.
“Listen to me, you are both students who have to go to school, no need to put police in this situation, right?” Susan said in a message to Yaolin.
“But you don’t know the situation I’m in,” Yaolin said. “I have no other way anymore.”
Again, she didn’t call the police.
Four days later, Xu received a message from Yaolin at 1:23 a.m.
“Are you awake? I got beaten.”
Xu asked Yaolin to come over. She said she couldn’t. Daniel was beating her and wouldn’t let her out of his sight.
Yaolin snuck out around 7 a.m. that morning and stayed in Xu’s apartment.
Soon after, her father came to visit from China to celebrate Yaolin’s 21st birthday. On the last day of her father’s visit, Daniel packed his suitcases and left the apartment. He told Susan he was going back to Seattle.
Yaolin thought it was over, until she walked out of her apartment the afternoon of Sept. 30 and saw Daniel standing outside. At 2:01 p.m. she messaged Susan.
“My nightmare is back again.”
Yaolin thought about calling the police after Daniel came to Bloomington, when the abuse, detailed by her friends, began again.
Her roommate discouraged her repeatedly whenever she expressed a desire to call the police. With the little information everyone knew, they never saw the relationship as abusive.
“I just thought this was another normal case of a girl not being able to get rid of a guy,” Xu said.
Xu said she felt guilty, remembering many opportunities she could have saved Yaolin’s life. She thought about talking to someone at Counseling and Psychological Services at first. But now, after she got over the initial pain, Xu said she doesn’t want to let go of her guilt.
“I have to have a scar to remind me not to make the same mistake again,” Xu said.
Nancy Stockton, director of CAPS, said victims of abuse not reaching out for help is an almost universal pattern across cultures.
“The abuser’s control over the woman is nearly absolute,” Stockton said.
As is often the case when students die, several people came to CAPS seeking counseling for Yaolin’s death. There is no Mandarin-speaking counselor at CAPS, though Stockton is actively seeking one. An after-hours contact number offers counseling in Mandarin.
Kai Lin, a researcher at the University of Delaware who has attended colleges both in China and the U.S., said there should be a system in place to offer support to international students from the moment they arrive on campus.
“Having that kind of social support is very, very important,” Lin said.
Lin was part of a team that published a study comparing American and Chinese students’ perceptions of intimate partner violence. One of the primary findings of the team’s research was that Chinese students perceive fewer actions as abuse.
Because fewer Chinese students see abuse as a crime, Lin said, they are also less likely to call the police. The study Lin worked on stated police in mainland China were less likely to intervene in cases of violence between couples.
“... Many police officers regard (intimate partner violence) as private matters beyond police responsibilities and often refuse to accept or process victims’ complaints,” according to the study.
Back to living
At the funeral home, Meghan imagined the place where they kept Yaolin’s body would be dark and cold. But the room was filled with yellow light. There was a floral scent in the air.
Meghan saw Yaolin lying on the dressing table, covered by a cream-colored blanket. Yaolin’s eyelashes were curled neatly. Meghan was almost convinced Yaolin was just sleeping.
“She’s not dead,” she remembers thinking.
If Meghan was alone, she said she would have called Yaolin’s name over and over until she woke up.
Yaolin’s sister, too, could hardly believe her sister would never get up again.
During Jielin’s visit to Bloomington for the funeral, she picked up Yaolin’s belongings at the police station.
She froze when she saw the bag Yaolin was carrying the day of her death.
The leather tote bag, once deep blue, was covered with dried blood — her sister’s blood. Scrubbing the blood off, she began to cry.
Jielin remembered how much Yaolin hated vaccine shots when she was a little girl. She’d cry out, ‘It hurts.’
“I couldn’t imagine how much pain she must have been in when it happened.”
When she learned the details of her sister’s murder, Jielin couldn’t sleep. Every time she closed her eyes she saw her little sister, alone and frightened, crying “Sister, help me, sister help me.”
She would give up anything — her own life, even — to have Yaolin back.
“I’d rather I took those stabs,” Jielin said.
Jielin floated through the days when she found out about her sister’s death as if she was dreaming.
Sitting in the airplane seat for the plane bound back to London from Indiana, forcing herself to accept her sister was gone forever, Jielin posted on her WeChat:
“If I fly a little bit higher, even higher, does that mean I could be closer to you?”
Mary Katherine Wildeman contributed reporting.