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The Physics of Revenge : WHEN DR. LU GANG'S AMERICAN DREAM DIED, SIX PEOPLE DIED WITH IT

June 07, 1992|JIM MANN | Jim Mann, former Times bureau chief in Beijing, is a staff writer in Washington. His last article for this magazine was on Hong Kong businessman Gordon Wu.

"The department/college/university authorities have been in a conspiracy to isolate me, delay my complaint so I might be forced to leave here and they could claim the case dismissed because of the absence of the plaintiff," Lu wrote the last day of his life.

LAST SEPTEMBER, LU PAID ANOTHER visit to Margaret Brooke at the University's office of international education. He was tense, shifting nervously in his chair, answering her questions in monosyllables, refusing to take off his khaki coat. "I have to have permission to work," he told her. Under his visa agreement, he was entitled to work only in the field of physics, but he wanted to find something else. Brooke asked him if he couldn't find a job in physics at the university or nearby. "No," Lu mumbled.

Brooke addressed him as Dr. Lu. He waved his hand. "Don't call me that," he said. "It (his Ph.D) is not worth anything." He left empty-handed.

H By then, Lu was clearly in despair. He showed up occasionally at Van Allen Hall for the Friday afternoon seminar and other aspects of academic life in Iowa's physics department. But he also spent time sitting at home watching soap operas. So great was his bitterness toward the physics department that when he got a routine solicitation for a financial contribution, Lu, rather than ignoring it, sent his old department a check for one penny.

He was finishing up his life.

There was time for one last fling. Lu Gang wanted to see Disney World. His credit-card records show that on Sept. 18, when students were just getting into the new school year, Lu bought a $199 Greyhound ticket. Two days later, he ate dinner at a Chinese in Key West, Fla. Over the next few days, he visited Sea World in Orlando, took pictures of the parade at Disney World and ran up charges at the New Orleans Aquarium. He returned to Iowa within a week.

His complaints about being denied the Spriestersbach award were going nowhere. Lu had even written to Rawlings, the university president, and to the Des Moines Register, the state's leading newspaper, but without any impact.

University officials were still trying to figure out how to handle his complaint. In mid-October, Nicholson told Goertz about Lu's angry appeals. "My husband came home, looking very distraught, and he said Lu Gang had gone to university officials complaining about Dwight Nicholson," recalls Ulrike Goertz. The next day, Goertz tried to talk to Lu, explaining that the dissertation prize was not a big deal, and that anyway, Shan had done better with a riskier topic. "Did he understand?" his wife asked him afterward. "I don't know," Goertz sighed.

Lu didn't understand. He claimed in one of his final letters that after Goertz heard about his series of complaints to university officials, the professor warned him. "If you continue, it will backfire." If Goertz said this, he most likely meant that the grievances against the university might affect Lu's job prospects. But Lu maintained that this was an attempt at a cover-up and that it demonstrated the existence of a conspiracy against him. "Since then, I have sworn to myself that I would revenge at any cost," he wrote.

Early in October, Lu began withdrawing his savings from his bank accounts. He bought a $10,000 money order and mailed it home to his sister Lu Huimin. She was stunned. It was, for a resident of China, a huge amount of money. A couple of weeks later, he did it again, sending another $10,000 check back to his sister with a short note that said, simply and ominously, "When you get the check, deposit it in the bank. Whatever may happen to me, you may know in the future."

Lu's sister received the second check in Beijing on Oct. 28. Three days later, troubled by his note, she called Lu Gang in Iowa to ask how he was doing. "He said the security in the United States is not very good," recalls Lu Huimin. "It occurred to me that something might happen to him, so I asked him, 'Do you feel well?' He told me, 'I'm okay, but I've been honest and frank for my whole life, and I've suffered for being that sort of person. People take advantage of me, and I feel very bad about it.' "

Lu Gang asked about his parents and about his sister's child. He never mentioned his problems with the physics department. And, Lu Huimin says, "He never let me know a trace of what he was about to do."

In the last hours of his life, Lu Gang cleaned out the remainder of his savings, $4,793.01 from one bank account and $520 from another, and put it into checks that could be mailed to China. He also packaged his clothes, a camera, tape recorder, binoculars and hair dryer. He put these together with a final letter to his sister. "Last night, when I finished talking to you on the telephone, I wept my heart out here alone," he wrote. "For the life of me, I can't swallow all this."

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