Sinedu Tadesse (1974 - May 28, 1995) was a junior in college at Harvard University when she murdered her roommate, Trang Ho, and then killed herself on May 28, 1995. The ensuing scandal played out in the courts and Boston newspapers, and may have resulted in a variety of changes to the administration of living conditions at Harvard. Tadesse is buried at the Ethiopian Orthodox Cemetery, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Tadesse had grown up in a relatively well-off family in Ethiopia. However, this period in Ethiopia's history was turbulent. Her father had been jailed for two years when Tadesse was aged about seven. She was ostracized by other students as well as her own family members during her childhood years in Ethiopia. Tadesse then devoted herself to her studies, gaining admission to the prestigious International Community School, where she graduated as valedictorian and earned admission to Harvard.
Unfortunately, she was unable to keep up academically when she arrived at Harvard, and was told that her below-average grades would keep her from attending top-ranked medical schools in the U.S. She made no friends, remaining distant even from relatives she had in the area. Tadesse sent a form letter to dozens of strangers that she picked from the phone book, describing her unhappiness and pleading with them to be her friend. One woman responded to the letter but became alarmed by the bizarre writings and recordings Sinedu sent her in return; she had no further contact with Sinedu. Another woman found the letter obnoxious and sent it to a friend who worked at Harvard to review.
After her freshman year, her roommate told her she was going to room with someone else. For her second and third years, Tadesse roomed with Trang Ho, a Vietnamese student who was well liked and doing well at Harvard, and Tadesse was obsessively fond of her. Tadesse was very needy in her demands for attention and became angry when Trang began to distance herself in their junior year. Tadesse apparently reacted with despair when Ho announced her decision to room with another group of girls their senior year, and the two women stopped speaking with each other after that.
The main events
Tadesse purchased two knives and a length of rope in advance, and the week before the murder, Tadesse sent a photograph of herself with an anonymous note to The Harvard Crimson, saying "Keep this picture. There will soon be a very juicy story involving this woman." She took one final exam, but got medical exemptions for two others, and had a brunch date with a fellow Ethiopian student named Neb; he later realized she was saying goodbye to him before she killed herself.
On May 28, 1995, Sinedu Tadesse stabbed her roommate 45 times with a hunting knife, killing her. Tadesse also attacked one of Ho's visiting friends, a 26-year-old named Thao Nguyen, severely injuring her as well. Tadesse then hung herself in the bathroom. The entire event took place on the third floor, making it difficult for police to enter.
In the days after the murder, it was speculated on campus and in the press that Tadesse had resorted to violence because Ho had asked not to room with her again in the fall. Members of Tadesse's family countered that she was the one who opted out of rooming with Ho, as she was often alone in the dormitory because Ho often stayed with her family in nearby Medford, Massachusetts.
Trang Ho's family thought Harvard could have prevented her death. In 1998, they filed suit against the school, alleging "wrongful death, conscious pain and suffering and emotional distress," and charging the university, as well as various people in charge at Dunster House, with negligence. They felt that the university had plenty of evidence that Tadesse was losing her mind and becoming fixated on violent vengeance, and that the university could have prevented the deaths.
After the murder, a debate erupted at Harvard over whether the school should establish a scholarship in the names of both girls or only in Ho's. They decided on the latter, and students can now apply for the Trang Ho Public Service Fellowship to pay for charitable work during the summer after junior year.
Most analysis of the murder follows the 1997 publication of Halfway Heaven: Diary of a Harvard Murder, a book by 1987 Harvard graduate Melanie Thernstrom. Thernstrom was sympathetic towards Tadesse's outcast status and mental problems (though she also remembers rebuffing Sinedu's attempt to sign up for one of her creative writing classes, and being frankly relieved when Sinedu left her classroom and did not return), and sharply critical of how Harvard handled both what happened and the aftermath. The book also details several instances of students with mental-health issues having their situations exacerbated by indifferent and unsympathetic Harvard officials, as well as a campus housing structure with incompetent advisors.
Thernstom traveled to Tadesse's home in Ethiopia and gained access to her diaries, which revealed her deteriorating mental health, her obsessive fantasizing about an ideal friend, and her frustrating attempts to find competent psychiatric care.
- Thernstrom, Melanie. Halfway Heaven: Diary of a Harvard Murder. Plume Books, September 1998. (ISBN 0-452-28007-9)
- Find-A-Grave profile for Sinedu Tadesse
- Goldstein, Marianne. "Death At Harvard" People Daily, June 7, 1995.
- Pergament, Rachel. "Review of Halfway Heaven: Diary of a Harvard Murder", Academic Law Libraries Special Interest Section Newsletter. Volume 18, Issue 1, 1998.
- Dunlop, Katherine. "Institutional Isolation", Perspective magazine at Harvard-Radcliffe, November 1997. Personal recollections, and analysis of Halfway Heaven.