On March 3, 2006, Mohammed Taheri-azar, a 22-year-old Iranian-American who had recently graduated from UNC, drove through the Pit in a rented Jeep with the intention of killing students, faculty, staff and whoever else stood in his way.
No one was killed, but nine were injured — and the campus’ sense of security was shaken to its core.
“One of the most horrific incidents that I’ve ever come upon,” said Peggy Jablonski, the former vice chancellor for student affairs who was one of the senior officials on scene.
Taheri-azar, who called 911 on himself after leaving the Pit, said in interviews with detectives that day he committed the attack “because people are being killed by the government of the United States” in the Middle East and that it was his “right in religion to avenge their deaths.”
In letters and court appearances immediately after, Taheri-azar showed no remorse. Now, a decade later, he said in an interview from Avery-Mitchell Correctional Institution in Spruce Pine that he is sorry for the pain he caused.
“Everything is a regret now,” said Taheri-azar, who was initially indicted on nine counts of attempted murder of the first degree but took a plea deal of just two sentences in August 2008.
“I didn’t think I felt remorse. I would have never done it had I known better ... I guess you could say I got better perspective on life.”
‘Assault on the heart of campus’
Jeffrey Hoffman remembers it as a relatively normal spring Friday.
After eating lunch at Alpine Bagel, he noticed the car and immediately thought someone was lost — “maybe a parent on a tour or something.”
He said he put his head down and began trudging to class, looking up again when he heard the unmistakable roar of an engine.
“I took a little ride on the windshield,” said Hoffman, who was a junior at the time.
Hoffman was lucky — his injuries were minor, only a sprained knee that healed itself after a couple days. But eight others were injured as well, including a history graduate student who broke his wrist and tailbone.
Taheri-azar even stopped in between Greenlaw Hall and Lenoir Dining Hall before hitting the accelerator.
“If the Jeep didn’t turn on, I would have said that is a sign and would not have pursued it further.”
He battled internally about whether to do it.
“I really did try to tell God that if what I am about to do today is wrong, then don’t let me do it,” he said.
Immediately after, no one knew if people had died or if the attack was isolated. Taheri-azar said he thought he might have killed five to 10 people, and Randy Young, spokesperson for UNC’s Department of Public Safety who was among the first responders that day, said his office was thrown into a “hyper-vigilant state.”
“We weren’t sure of the scope, so we had to make sure it wasn’t a multi-tiered attack on campus,” he said. DPS, Chapel Hill Police and other law enforcement set up an incident command center as the Pit became a crime scene.
“Seeing police cars and ambulances in that area ...It felt like an assault on the heart of campus,” he said.
Taheri-azar turned himself in, telling detectives that he didn’t want it to turn into “a high-speed chase” and that he had nowhere to go. He had a knife and pepper spray with him in the Jeep in case he had to get out of his car, according to interviews with detectives.
He took measures to commit the most damage possible. In interviews with detectives, he said rented a Jeep because “there’s a better chance you can keep going after you hit an obstacle” and chose lunchtime to do it because of the large number of people in the Pit at that time.
“For some reason, I wanted them to know I did it and why I did it,” he said 10 years later.
The anger in his heart
He didn’t have any friends, just “acquaintances” from his classes. He had become cut off from his family. Alone and working at Jimmy John’s on Franklin Street to make rent at his Carrboro apartment, Taheri-azar was frustrated with his life despite graduating less than three months before.
“The last place I wanted to work was Jimmy John’s.”
He applied to more than 10 graduate schools for clinical psychology as well as 25 different jobs. His top choice, a counseling position at the state’s juvenile criminal justice division, declined him.
“I would say there’s a good chance I wouldn’t have done it (had the state extended an offer),” he said.
But the biggest reason for his anger toward the American government and former President George W. Bush, he said, was the lack of social interaction he had.
“Had I been socializing with people more, had people I cared about and loved, that would have prevented me from committing a crime like this.”
Letters sent by Taheri-azar in the months after his arrest, while he was in Raleigh’s Central Prison, give a glimpse into his thinking at the time.
There, he was immediately put on suicide watch and kept separate from other prisoners. One of his letters to an Orange County judge complained of a psychiatrist closing his door too loudly; another letter informed the court that he dismissed his court-appointed attorney without a reason why.
“Your mind starts to act really funny when you’re locked in a room for a long time,” he said.
His lawyer James Williams notified the court that the defense would pursue an insanity defense.
The judgements by psychiatrists from either side never became public after Taheri-azar agreed to the plea deal in 2008 that came with a maximum of 33 years in prison.
“(My family) didn’t want to see me getting any time at all and were pushing for me to go to trial with the insanity defense, but I didn’t want that.”
Going to trial, Taheri-azar said, put him at risk for a life sentence, something he wanted to avoid.
He said the psychiatrists’ evaluations did not turn up anything — or at least “anything they thought medicine could fix.” He said he is not on any medication currently.
‘A return to normalcy’
A “reclaiming” of the Pit was held after spring break and helped the campus come together again, Jablonski said. A sense of safety and routine quickly returned to campus — except for some of the victims.
“Those people had to continue a healing process from both a physical and mental health perspective,” she said.
As far as Taheri-azar, he has held a relatively low profile since agreeing to his plea deal. He said he started working out in a CrossFit program and is reading classics such as Dickens.
But the biggest change has been his remorsefulness.
“If I could see the victims, I would tell them to their face that I wish I didn’t do it.”
While Hoffman said that sentiment is good to hear, he said he has trouble believing that Taheri-azar has changed from the indifferent person that intentionally hit him and eight others.
“I don’t have any reason to think any differently,” he said.
This will be the challenge for Taheri-azar, who is projected to be released in April of 2032.
“I hope the world can see me again as a person and not a criminal and accept me again,” he said.
“A return to normalcy.”