When the shouting and popping sounds started, several UC Irvine students thought it was simply people playing with firecrackers on this tranquil Orange County campus.
They soon learned otherwise.
A graduate student involved in a custody dispute shot and killed his ex-wife Sunday evening just outside a student and family housing complex, police said Monday.
Brian Benedict, 35, was arrested on suspicion of killing Rebecca Benedict, 30. The couple's 4-year-old son was nearby when the shooting occurred, police said. It was the first homicide in campus history, officials said.
"If I were living in a dangerous place, I might have paid attention to those sounds," said Guoxiong Zhang, 23, a graduate student who was sitting at his computer when he heard the noise outside his window. "Since I'm living in Irvine, I did not believe this kind of thing was happening here."
Indeed, not only had the campus never before experienced this kind of violence, but Irvine itself routinely ranks as one of the country's safest cities.
The victim, who graduated from UCI in 2004, arrived on campus Sunday evening to pick up her son and the couple began arguing, said Jeff Hutchison, assistant chief of the UCI Police Department. The suspect followed her outside and shot her several times, Hutchison said. Several people witnessed the shooting and detained the suspect before police arrived. Others tried to help the victim, who was pronounced dead at a hospital.
On Monday, police tape surrounded the site of the shooting, steps away from several apartments. Residents said the complex houses a tight-knit community of families and graduate students. Parents coordinate play dates with one another's children and hold birthday parties at a preschool in the middle of the complex. Many residents have lived there for several years while pursuing their degrees.
Graduate students Sara Ellis and Yuka Kanno have been in the complex for five years. Until Sunday, when a bullet shattered their apartment window, the most dangerous thing they'd experienced on campus was the theft of a car stereo.
They called 911 after their window shattered and they realized someone was shooting. Kanno crawled to the door they'd left open, shut it and locked it.
"You just don't expect something like this to happen," Ellis said.
According to court records, Brian and Rebecca Benedict had been involved in a long custody dispute.
Brian Benedict, who lived alone except when his son came to visit, was working toward a doctorate in physics. He'd earned a master's from the school in 2004, the year he and Rebecca married, according to court records.
The couple, who separated in 2006, had been in and out of family court this year. The judge in the case ruled last week to more than double Brian Benedict's monthly child support payments to $920. He had argued that his payments should be based on his current salary as a research assistant -- about $26,000 a year -- not on the $85,000 a year he reportedly earned while employed for Northrop Grumman Corp.
Judge Nancy A. Pollard disagreed, ruling that "the care and maintenance of the child is more important than the care and maintenance of the father's schooling."
The records also appear to indicate that Brian Benedict had attempted suicide sometime during the prolonged court battle, stating that the court "further orders that if another incident of suicide or attempted suicide occurs," Rebecca Benedict could come to court alone.
About a week before the ruling, Brian Benedict had approached UCI police to ask about child custody, authorities said.
Hutchison said the conversation lasted less than 10 minutes and that Benedict did not appear to be acting unusually.
A male relative of Brian Benedict answered the phone at a home in Carpinteria on Monday but declined to comment. No one answered the door at an address listed for Rebecca Benedict in Westminster.