Art: Hugo Amador; Photos: Cornell Sun Photo Archives

February 6, 2024

AMADOR | The Brilliant and The Damned: The Secret Life of Cornell’s Most Beautiful Criminals 

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On a February day in 2022, a lean brunette man with blue eyes named Tadzio walked out of his home and paraded two houses down to a party hosted by his fellow law students. Not many people knew of Tadzio’s life outside of Myron Taylor Hall. He lived on East State Street in a small wooden home plastered blue and white on its exterior. The curtains always remained closed; they added a layer of protection from sunlight and peering eyes, with the branches of the trees surrounding the home acting in first defense. He lived, rather begrudgingly, with two graduate students. On the weekends, his roommates never saw him; his door, slightly unhinged, unleveled, remained closed beholding him behind it, only allowing a sliver of space above its perimeter to be seen. He was — to say the least — a man ambitious to live hidden. On that very February night, however, perhaps in a moment of vulnerability, or desperation to be seen, he told me: “I think about hurting people.” 

When I first met Tadzio that February, he came across as calm, well-spoken and above all, brilliant. He was beautiful. His intelligence and the intensity of his character carried him as an intimidating individual throughout the hills of Ithaca, but he also gave himself to kindness with those that cherished him. In his room, a dead stick bug laid enclosed in a frame with pins in its abdomen. It hung on his wall above his torts textbook and an English translation of À la recherche du temps perdu by Marcel Proust. He had caught the creature among the depths of the tropical forests in an excursion to Central America. “It reminds me of Honduras,” he would tell me. “The bug?” I asked. “No. the pin in its abdomen,” he responded. He had spent a few years living in Honduras where violence was the norm; gunshots were the last thing you heard before you fell asleep. Upon his return to the states, he spent sleepless nights in Ithaca — tossing and turning, tremors, raging from his shoulders to his feet, would jolt him awake. I could see, in the drawer adjacent to his creature a collection of drugs, bottles of empty opiate prescriptions he somehow mustered together from the dark web, friends and family. He would only do a few lines every night. He needed those to sleep.

He highlighted a troubling youth; his mother terrorized him as a child. When he was a teenager she was diagnosed with cancer and passed away. He had walked in on his grandfather, dead, after he had shot himself in the head. A few days later, his grandmother shot herself too. As a child, Tadzio told me, he was often suicidal. The very frustration of his dark, confusing youth and adulthood led him to behave with impulsive belligerence towards those around him, and to himself above all. “I still think about hurting people, even though I won’t.” he told me. “I can’t practice law with a crime under my belt,” he continued. He now works at the most prestigious international law firm in New York City. 

Despite his inner turmoil, he was very poised in his demeanor. To me, Tadzio lived the most vivid life. But he lived every day, silent and intent, at a steady, anxious pace. To him, despite his desire to revel in the beauty of nature, in literature, in art or in music, there was a fear that engulfed him. At times it developed into thoughts of violence against himself and those around him. And I’ve noticed that this fear isn’t novel, especially for us at Cornell. 

In 2018, a former student, Maximilien R. Reynolds, was arrested for housing an AR-15 rifle and a homemade bomb in his Collegetown apartment. Reynolds later explained it was out of fear and paranoia. 

That same year, former student Charles Tan was arrested for killing his father with a shotgun he had tasked another Cornell student to purchase. “I entered my parents’ home through the back door, walked upstairs, turned into my father’s office and shot my father three times as he was sitting at his desk,” he admitted. In an affidavit, Tan took full responsibility for the crime, claiming he lived in fear of his father given years of verbal and physical abuse against him and his mother. 

On Nov. 9, I attended Patrick Dai’s hearing in federal court after he threatened to conduct a mass killing on our Jewish community at Cornell. Despite knowing the macabre nature of his actions, I sat through his hearing waiting for his defense attorney to utter the word “fear,” and hoping that it would somehow explain what led him to the terror that he imposed on society. Perhaps I was hoping to find some humanity within him. 

It was then, from that corner of that courtroom, a few steps away from Dai, fully knowing that he had committed a crime of violence, that I questioned whether Dai ought to be vilified in the way the nation has done. It was the same doubt, from the moment Tadzio spoke to me, that led me to think: I was to be his friend. It would be established. I was to understand the very fear that forced these men into solitude and violence at Cornell, but more importantly: why society made monsters out of them. And I wanted to understand it more than I wanted life, or anything else.

Life Before the Crime

On Oct. 31, Dai was arraigned and brought into custody. His Collegetown apartment was searched by Cornell University Police, the Ithaca Police Department, New York State Police and the FBI. Yet, unknown to them at the time, Dai had attempted suicide a few hours earlier. He had researched — upon investigations into his computer history — how to effectively overdose; how to suffocate himself. He had scoured material on successful suicide attempts, particularly those by gunshot to the head. I sat behind Dai’s mother in the courtroom as Dai’s defense attorney, Lisa Peebles, presented this evidence to Magistrate Judge Therese W. Dancks on Nov. 9. Peebles highlighted Dai’s current and past suicidal ideations. Dai knew, Peebles recalls, that in order to kill himself, he would have to point a gun at the proper angle, through his mouth, ensuring that he “sheared off the spinal column.” Upon hearing this, Dai’s mother’s cheeks turned red, her head lowered and she crossed her coat around her figure for warmth. 

When he was arrested, Dai asked to waive his bail hearing. “Right now, I can’t guarantee that I won’t kill myself” he told the investigator. Dai was asking for help. But to Judge Dancks, the potential risk that Dai posed to the people around him was heavier than the risk to himself. And the evidence was concerning: while under questioning, Dai admitted to a moment when he had wanted to hijack his mother’s steering wheel and drive the car off a cliff while she drove. In a separate event, he considered locking his family’s car in the garage — while his family slept — and using its exhaust to fill the house with carbon monoxide; in 2022, Dai had done extensive research on how the Buffalo mass shooter carried out the murder of 10 Black people; the following year, in February of 2023, Dai had Googled why and how Israel was to blame for the conflict in the Middle East. 

It’s an issue “deeper than depression,” Peebles said to the Judge, it’s an “undiagnosed developmental disability.” But Patrick was known to be brilliant, successful. Family members and former classmates of his wrote letters to the judge claiming that Patrick had his close group of friends in high school and was considered the smartest person they knew. And this merit wasn’t unforeseen — his father is a successful professor in China. Patrick was raised in a wealthy school district. He was named a national merit scholar and achieved a perfect score on the SAT. He got into Cornell. 

At this point, no one could understand why, as a child raised in a wealthy neighborhood, having parents who valued success and a comfortable life with a Cornell degree “handed” to him, he lived a life disturbed. 

Tadzio lived a similar life. Before arriving at Cornell Law, he traversed the West Coast. He was raised in a quaint coastal town in central California where his parents were both professors of English literature at their local university. In their youth, his parents had explored the small crevices of the world together. They were well off. Tadzio always got everything he desired. But he was prone to nightmares and panic. His anxiety as a child was debilitating and concerning. He would foster anger from his inability to control his panic, and at times inflicted suffering on those around him. School teachers, friends and family members villainized his behavior, and in doing so failed to see how he was suffering intensely himself. His mother’s later abuse, and the suicides of his grandparents only made matters worse.

Tadzio’s parents never took him to a psychologist even after the recommendation of friends and family. They ignorantly refused: he would grow out of it, or so they thought. This response on mental health isn’t novel; only about 50 percent of adults with mental or behavioral issues received some form of treatment in their childhood or before attending college. Just like Tadzio, those who were taught to accept their psychological battles as children without any therapeutic intervention lived a life in constant unease that teetered on the edge between anger and violence. 

But Patrick had been through therapy in his youth. His parents noticed something was wrong early on. When he was young, Dai’s mother told me, she was diagnosed with cancer. And with his father spending most of his time in China, Patrick was forced to pick up some of the responsibilities in caring for his mother and brother. Shortly after, Dai began showing signs of depression, and he was put on antidepressants. But they weren’t working — studies have shown that up to 35 percent of those on antidepressant medication do not respond to the drugs. Psychiatry, to this extent, had failed him. 

In hearing about his difficult youth, his distraught relationship with therapy and mental distress, the multiple indicators of solitude at home and at Cornell and his many suicide attempts, the Judge only saw these to be a “risk of flight.” The only matter to be considered here is that if Patrick were to be released, he would attempt suicide as a way to avoid punishment for the threats he set on the Jewish community. But Peebles proposed that Dai be put on house arrest under constant observation until his trial; he would receive better, intensive psychological care; he would have no access to technology; he and his family would surrender their passports; he would be home, with his mother — his only support system. Judge Dancks refused. Instead, Dai must now remain detained until his trial, where his state likely worsens.  

The Remedial State, And A Forgiving Society

Since Patrick made his threats, the Cornell community and the nation have remained paralyzed in fear with the growing political divide and the threats of anti-Semitism and islamophobia. Just recently, the Department of Education has launched an investigation at Cornell and other universities for discrimination on campus since the onslaught in the Middle East. It appears that this culture of terror has led individuals to act without restraint. To many, without humanity. But we fail to realize that terror today is more than simply the violence, the war, the death we see. Terror is seeded in deception, in suspicion, in paranoia, in fear, in revenge and retaliation, in anger. In recent years, our identities and what we fight for have been contoured not by shared moral values but rather against a shared fear against an “other,” a foe. And even then, when we come across those who have acted on behalf of this fear, we must attempt to remedy those wrongs, and then we must simply forgive. 

All of these men, which society has made into monsters, are living in times of hatred. Ostracizing and dehumanizing rhetoric against the “other” flourishes. It is in the state of this world, and perhaps one where we feel abandoned by all the systems that were meant to support us, that we respond to fear in the way we’ve seen Tadzio, Reynolds, Tan and Dai do so: in fear, in terror. 

So I increasingly keep wondering: “justice” is not simply retroactive when we consider terror — culprits are only released from prison to a world just as frightful, alone and divided, further siloed from society and a futile cycle ensues. Nobody talks about that. Throw him in jail!  Then he’s released a few years later. Then what do you do? We must scrutinize the transgressions, then sit with the “why” and attempt to forgive. 

These men’s actions are perhaps monstrous, but they themselves are not monsters. They are not anymore monstrous than you or I. The terrors Dai threatened our Jewish community with were surely unacceptable, unimaginable and clearly evident in fact — but so was the evidence of his troubled past and present. Judge Dancks could have yielded to allowing Dai to return home to his mother until his trial, but simply chose not to. “I’m not heartless, council,” Dancks said to Peebles. 

The booming wars around the world thus continue to fuel an American exceptionalism: that in the current state of instability, we must punish and move on as we see fit. Our intent is as “just” and “pure” as the heart of our people. While “they” sought to punish and terrorize our communities — simply in anger and savagery — “we” punish because we have no other option but to allow innocent civilians to live under threats and terror. And the dilemma here isn’t whether or not to punish, but rather: how exactly do we remedy these evil acts carefully such that we do not become just as evil in the process? More importantly, how do we calm this fear and paranoia that continues to push “them” away from “us?”   

After shooting his father, Tan wrote a letter to the judge acknowledging that his solitude and bottling of his fears and problems only lead to a “backfire.” Being a 19 year old “full of fear, anxiety, anger, with no outlet and no one to talk to is a recipe for disaster.” Perhaps we can’t resolve the world from fear, but we can definitely relieve fear from a person. 

When Tadzio graduated, I helped pack his few belongings into my car and we made our way together to New York City. He drank the whole trip there to calm his nerves. He was about to be alone, once again, terrified. In gratitude for my time, he gifted me his copy of À la recherche du temps perdu by Marcel Proust. I hugged him goodbye and left. 

I haven’t heard from Tadzio since that moment. When I opened the book earlier last semester for the first time (I just so happened to be reading it in a class) a note fell out. It contained multiple thanks and apologies of sorts, among other things: 

“Thanks for listening,” he wrote. “And for reminding me that I’m destined to amount to something wonderful. Or at the very least, something beautiful.”

Hugo Amador is a senior editor for The Cornell Daily Sun’s 141st Editorial Board. He can be reached at [email protected].

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