Courtesy of Tom Breen

On Monday morning, family and friends of the late Kevin Jiang ENV ’22 squeezed into courtroom benches for the probable cause hearing they have been anticipating for months.

Just feet in front of them sat Qinxuan Pan – a Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher charged with murdering Jiang in February 2021. The hearing took place before State Superior Court Judge Jon Alander LAW ’78 in the Chapel Street courthouse. In probable cause hearings this week, the state aims to convince Alander that there is sufficient evidence linking Pan to the murder. If Alander agrees, prosecutors can proceed with the criminal case. 

Attorneys called on witnesses who recounted the murder and their interactions with Pan that night, including a neighbor who witnessed the murder, responding officers, a scrap metal yard security guard and a tow truck driver.

“I hope to see justice soon,” Jiang’s mother Linda Liu told the News after the hearing concluded for the day. “Not for money or fame but for the truth.”

Monday’s hearing marks Pan’s first lengthy appearance in court as his attorneys delayed the case for months. After Pan’s arrest, judges granted Pan and his attorney multiple extensions to review evidence. Pan’s lawyer claimed that Pan was having difficulty reading through documents related to the case because Pan had limited access to the prison library. 

In September, Pan’s attorney asked Alander to order a “competency exam,” saying Pan was a “communicative challenge” and that he could not obtain “a straight answer” from him. Ultimately, with results from the exam Alander granted, Pan was deemed fit for trial in early November.

In the courtroom, the witness accounts wove a narrative of events surrounding the murder, from East Rock’s Lawrence Street, to a North Haven scrap metal yard, to snow-covered railroad tracks, Arby’s and a Best Western hotel. Prosecutors presented evidence including video footage of the shooting as captured from a neighbor’s outward-facing living room security camera, Jiang’s autopsy report and various photographs of the murder scene.

 

Lawrence Street, East Rock, New Haven. February 6, 8:35 p.m.

The first piece of witness testimony came from a neighbor, identified as Nicole, who saw the shooting outside her window. After she saw a man firing shots at Jiang, she said she saw the shooter enter the driver’s side of an SUV with tinted windows.

“It replays in my head almost every day,” she said Monday morning.

Pan’s attorney, Kevin Smith, asked Nicole if there was another person in the car to which she replied that she saw only one person get into the vehicle.

NHPD Officer Casey O’Brien testified next, recalling how he had been working overtime on his second shift as a patrol officer in New Haven’s East Rock neighborhood that night. By the time he got to the scene of the murder, the New Haven Fire Department and a medical response team were already there.

Jiang was deceased and bleeding heavily, O’Brien said. About 30 feet away from Jiang’s body, a silver Toyota Prius was parked in the middle of the street with its hazard lights on. O’Brien secured the crime scene with tape and blocked off the area. When he was done, he ran the Toyota’s plates and determined that it belonged to Kevin Jiang.

O’Brien conducted a neighborhood canvas and said he spoke with three people including one neighbor who had an outward-facing camera in his living room window. The man showed O’Brien partial footage of the murder which O’Brien recorded on his cell phone.  

As prosecutors played the video in court, Pan leaned in to watch intently. The video shows a dark SUV pulling up behind the parked Toyota, with a loud bang indicating that the cars had collided. Jiang turns on his hazard lights and exits the car. Then gunshots are heard — two or three followed by a succession of faster shots.

Then, according to Nicole’s account and the footage, the dark SUV pulled away.

 

Sims Scrap Metal Yard, North Haven. February 6, 9 p.m.

Joseph Cusano works as a security guard at Sims Metal Management just off Exit 9 along I-91 in North Haven. Most nights, Cusano’s main role is to make sure there are no trespassers and no fires in the scrap metal yard.

On Feb. 6, 2021, he was working a 2 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift and estimated there were about six other people working at the yard that night.

Cusano told the court that he saw a dark SUV pull into the lot just before 9 p.m. At first, Cusano said he thought it was a food delivery person since a similar vehicle had come delivering food a few days before. Inside this vehicle, he saw an Asian male in the driver’s seat and did not see anyone else in the vehicle. Typically, Cusano said he keeps the gate halfway closed, but the man drove right through the gate.

Cusano said he saw the car speeding off toward the back of the lot. That area, Cusano said, is “just piles of metal” so Cusano drove after him, following him to the back. Cusano rolled down his window when the driver turned his vehicle around to face him, but said the man ignored him and sped away. 

The driver drove off towards the gate, the only entrance or exit in the five-acre fenced-in yard. But just before the exit, the driver veered off to the right into what Cusano described as a “cubby hole.” To escape the dead end of scrap dumpsters, the driver made a six-point turn. Cusano again attempted to make contact with the driver, gesturing in the direction out of the lot.

The driver attempted to speed off again, this time turning a sharp left directly into another dead end. At this point, Cusano and the drivers’ windshields were directly facing each other, just feet apart. Then, according to Cusano, the driver firmly swept his hand in one motion across his throat. 

“I took it to mean: stop following me,” Cusano told the court.

Despite repeated attempts to redirect the man, he would not make eye contact with Cusano, maintaining what Cusano referred to as a “ghost-like” expression on his face.

“It made me feel very nervous,” Cusano said. “There was no reason for him to be back there –- he was just running from me.”

Smith, Pan’s attorney, asked whether it was possible the man was not gesturing a threat but was simply adjusting something around his neck. Cusano responded no. To him, it was clear what the motion meant.

The driver maneuvered around Cusano’s vehicle, zooming off to the back of the lot and cutting straight through an opening in the fence. In that direction, Cusano said there was just a dirt access road. Cusano followed and said he saw the driver attempt to drive across railroad tracks behind the yard. But the car got stuck, wheels lodged in the second set of tracks.

At this point Cusano decided to call the police and returned to the main gate to meet North Haven Police, who arrived on the scene within five to ten minutes.

As with Nicole, Smith pressed Cusano on if it was possible for there to have been other people in the vehicle that entered the lot.

“Unless someone was laying down or materialized out of thin air there was no one else,” Cusano said.

North Haven Police Department Sgt. Jeffery James Mills was one of two North Haven officers who arrived at the scrap metal yard. Mills said he was not aware of the murder in New Haven that had occurred earlier that same night.

Cusano directed Mills to the back of the lot where Mills drove up to the railroad tracks, approaching the dark blue GMC SUV. The driver, identified as Pan when he presented Mills with his Massachusetts driver’s license, told Mills he got lost.

Initially, Mills said Pan told him the car was his. When Mills ran the car plates, the system indicated that it was a stolen, lost or missing plate. Mills asked for Pan’s registration at which point Pan changed his answer, claiming it was a rental. Mills asked Pan for the rental agreement and Pan could not provide it. Mills later asked a tow truck driver to take off the stolen plates but did not mention asking Pan any further questions.

In court, prosecutors showed Mills’ body camera footage as he encountered Pan on the tracks and as he peered in the SUV’s tinted backseat windows with his flashlight. Although unseen in the body camera footage, Mills said he was able to see a soft leather briefcase and a blue retail-style bag with a logo for Malden, Massachusetts on the floor behind the driver’s seat.

Mills said he did not take inventory of the belongings inside the vehicle and saw no blood, damage or gunshot residue inside the vehicle.

In Mills’ testimony and as seen in the footage, Pan was wearing a knit winter hat and a New England Patriots neck gaiter pulled up around his face. Mills said Pan was also holding a yellow jacket in his hands.

“The only thing I can do is call you a tow truck,” Mills told Pan in the footage. To get the car towed, Mills said Pan would have to pay in cash and recommended that Pan stay in a hotel for the night.

 

Tow truck ride, North Haven. 

Nicholas Johnson has worked as a recovery driver and mechanic with Nelcon Towing & Recovery for seven years. He responded to the call to tow the SUV that Pan drove that night.

“He was polite but overly polite,” Johnson said, recounting his encounter with Pan.

According to Johnson, the SUV was stuck sideways across the railroad tracks with the front two tires flat. He said he noticed damage on the vehicle’s front bumper.

Johnson informed Pan he would have to take the vehicle to the impound lot. The SUV was already on the tow truck bed, so Johnson told Pan he would have to retrieve Pan’s belongings because it would be a liability for Pan to climb on the bed. Pan did not listen and repeatedly climbed up on the bed to get his bags. Eventually, Johnson said he had to grab Pan by the back of his shirt and pull Pan down off the tow truck.

“He was fixated on getting his stuff out of the car,” Johnson testified.

Johnson reached to grab what he said were two to three bags that “had some weight to them.”

At the end of the ride, Johnson dropped Pan off at a Best Western hotel on Washington Avenue in North Haven.

 

Arby’s, North Haven. 267 Washington Avenue. Feb. 7, 11 a.m. 

The next morning,. Mills was dispatched to yet another site in North Haven.

At the Arby’s on Washington Avenue, just down the street from the Best Western hotel, employees had found bags on the restaurant’s driveway with a .45 caliber firearm and boxes of ammunition among other items.

The employees spread the items from the bags out across a table. One of the items caught Mills’ eye.

“It instantly hit me,” he said. “These were the bags in the back of the truck.”

Mills recognized the blue retail bag and the soft leather briefcase. Mixed in with the items he also noticed the same knit winter hat and yellow jacket that Pan wore the night before.

“A lightbulb went off,” Mills told the court.

Mills said that morning he was aware of the homicide in New Haven but was not sure if the firearm found was the same weapon.

North Haven officers tagged and transferred the evidence to the NHPD.

Best Western, North Haven. 201 Washington Avenue. 

Mills rushed off to the Best Western down the street to locate Pan.

Someone at the front desk told Mills that Pan had checked in the night before but had not checked out. When Mills got to Pan’s room, it was empty and untouched. One employee told Mills that when she checked the room to clean it earlier that morning, it appeared as if no one had stayed there overnight. Pan was gone.

With the five witness testimonies and fragments of evidence submitted, the court adjourned for the day with plans to continue the probable cause hearing back in court Tuesday morning.

SOPHIE SONNENFELD
Sophie Sonnenfeld is City Editor of the Yale Daily News. She previously covered cops and courts as a beat reporter. She is a sophomore in Branford College double majoring in Political Science and Anthropology.