Victim's ties to Harvard unclear

Believed university's 1st homicide since '95

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By John Ellement and Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / May 20, 2009

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CAMBRIDGE - He was a tall man with a bright smile, an unabashed momma's boy who last told her he loved her about five hours before he was shot inside an entryway of a Harvard University dormitory.

But just what Justin D. Cosby was doing inside Kirkland House around 5 p.m. Monday remained murky yesterday for his mother, Denise Cosby, and for Middlesex District Attorney Gerard T. Leone Jr., who is investigating what is believed to be the first homicide at his alma mater since 1995.

"We've got some strong leads," Leone said. "But we don't know why he was there or what his connection to Harvard was."

Cosby, 21, went to the dormitory to see a female student who lives there, according to a law enforcement official with knowledge of the case. It is not clear how he entered the building or how many people were with him when he went inside.

Denise Cosby said she was not sure why her son was at Harvard, but she added that he often had friends she did not know.

He had attended Salem State College before dropping out in April.

Yesterday, however, her top priority was not the manner of her son's passing, but the loss she feels now that the 2005 graduate of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School is gone.

"Mine was a son to be proud of," Cosby said in an interview. "He was gentle. He was kind. He was loving. He was caring.

"This is the worst day of my life . . . I just can't believe my son is not here today. Inside, I'm just torn up, I feel like someone has murdered me."

Speaking in her Memorial Drive apartment, where she raised Justin and his older sister, Cosby said she last saw her son around 1 p.m. Monday. At the time, she had asked him to handle some mundane task, an assignment he initially grumbled at but then changed his mind and uttered the words she always welcomed.

"I love you, Mom," Cosby recalled her son saying.

Cosby said her son was in their apartment until late Monday afternoon, along with his girlfriend, and that she tried to reach him after she learned of the Harvard shooting from the news media.

She and Cosby's girlfriend were unable to contact him, and at about 8 p.m. a friend told Denise Cosby to go to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He was pronounced dead there early yesterday.

Shocked neighbors described Cosby as a tall, smiling, helpful presence in their neighborhood.

"I just can't believe that anyone would find it in their heart . . . to intentionally try to hurt him," said Isabelle Jackson. "He was just an angel."

Justin Cosby withdrew from Salem State this spring after accumulating enough credits to become a sophomore, according to Salem State spokeswoman Karen Cady.

He lived in a residence hall on campus his first two years, but was not taking a full academic load.

This year he commuted from Cambridge, she said.

Cosby played intramural basketball and participated in social events run by the college's multicultural student association and the Hispanic student association, she said.

"He was clearly well liked," Cady said. "He had a lot of friends here."

Interviewed before Cosby's death was publicly disclosed, Kirkland House residents and other Harvard students said they considered the shooting an anomaly.

Yet, several said they were concerned about their safety because Cosby and his attackers made their way inside the building. Residents need an electronic swipe card to gain access, but students said that is not foolproof.

"The one thing that kind of freaked me out was how did those people get in," said Julia Nunan-Saah, a Kirkland resident who did not see the shooting.

Harvard president Drew G. Faust was unavailable for comment yesterday on dorm security.

John Longbrake, her spokesman, told the Globe in a written statement: "We take issues of security extremely seriously. Harvard is an urban campus, and we are constantly reviewing and assessing our security measures."

Last night, about 70 students met with administrators and security staff in the Kirkland House's Junior Common Room to discuss the shooting. One Kirkland resident, who requested his name be withheld, said Harvard authorities met with students for nearly two hours.

A recurring concern voiced was the speed at which information was disseminated to students. The first official electronic message to the Harvard community was sent about an hour after the shooting, the student said, which he felt was too long. The student said he was sitting in the next room studying when he was startled by the shots.

"I think a lot of students, myself included, were relieved that it wasn't a Kirkland House student or a Harvard student" who was shot, he said.

The last high-profile killing on campus is believed to have occurred during finals week in 1995, when an undergraduate stabbed her roommate to death and then committed suicide by hanging herself in their shower stall.

Leone said the search for Cosby's killer is focusing on people who were in and near the dormitory, although he stressed there is no indication at this point in the investigation that any Harvard student had a direct role in Cosby's killing.

"We have no reason to believe that any Harvard student engaged in any criminal activity at this point," Leone said.

He said Cosby was shot in the stomach inside the J entry of Kirkland, on a downward stairwell that is on the left as one enters the building, which houses 380 students.

Leone, who also lived in Kirkland during his Harvard years, said he did not think the card swipe system failed to protect the students.

"We have no reason to believe that this was the result of faulty security," he said.

Maria Cramer of the Globe staff contributed to this report.