The scattered hair lying on the front porch of the Sigma Pi fraternity house Monday sum-med up the residents’ feelings for UC Berkeley engineering student Christopher Wootton, stabbed to death early Saturday morning less than a block away—love, admiration and respect.
Wootton’s Sigma Pi pledge brothers, their heads shaved to form a W, took turns to sweep away the remnants of hair, their pain visible.
“We did it last night, for Chris,” one of them said, standing in front of the makeshift memorial dotted with flowers, cards, candles and pictures.
Little has surfaced about the incident which left Wootton dead and sent waves of shock through the entire university a week before finals.
Police reports indicate a verbal exchange between students and others escalated into a physical fight which led to the stabbing. The report did not rule out the role of alcohol in the fight.
Officers from the Berkeley Police Department arrested Berkeley City College student Andrew Hoeft-Edenfield, 20, and charged him with the murder. He is currently being held in Santa Rita Jail and is scheduled to appear today (Thurs-day) for a hearing at the Alameda County Superior Court.
Eye witness testimony, local authorities said, played an important role in finding and arresting Hoeft-Edenfield.
UC Berkeley senior Jason Overman told the Planet he was shaken by the incident, which occurred right outside his apartment building on Warring Street.
“To think that someone would come into our community wielding a knife, and would do something this heinous, it makes me very angry,” he said.
More than 100 UC Berkeley students, faculty and fraternity members turned up for Wootton’s memorial service on the steps of Sproul Plaza Tuesday.
“He accomplished a lot of good in a life cut tragically short,” said Wootton’s research supervisor at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Dr. Steven Lund, praising Wootton’s research in accelerator physics. “I think Chris’s desire to participate in this research was driven by his desire to help and to have an influence in a pressing problem.”
Wootton’s friends gathered around a picture of him taken on a beach on the Sproul Hall steps Tuesday.
One of Wootton’s professors, Dr. Brian Wirth, referred to him as “Nuclear God,” a nickname given to him by his friends.
“Somebody said he was the closest thing to Superman, and he’s right,” said another friend, visiting from San Diego.
Wootton’s girlfriend, Brandy DeOrnellas, spoke of how Wootton always put family and friends before success. “Chris would want us to tell you something and that the most important thing is love,” she said.
Wootton, who grew up in Bellflower, in Los Angeles County, graduated with honors from Mayfair High School, his cousin Nicole Stewart told the Planet. “He was a good kid, it doesn’t make any sense,” she told the Planet over the phone from Wootton’s grandmother’s house in Lakewood.
Stewart, who drove down from Olympia, Wash., after hearing the news, said the whole family was in shock. “He had everything going for him and now he won’t be able to experience life,” she said.
Wootton’s grandmother, Sharon Priddy, said she had purchased tickets to fly down to Berkeley with her son and grandson for Wootton’s graduation scheduled to take place next month. His family will be in Berkeley on May 25 to receive his diploma.
Wootton’s brother Josh, a student at Cal State Long Beach, said he had flown down to Berkeley with their father, a computer programmer, on Saturday evening.
“I had my phone turned off, so I got the message really late, around 9:30 a.m,” he said. “We are all going to miss him. We are four years apart but I am close to him as if we had been born a day apart.”
Josh and his father flew back with Wootton’s body Tuesday to Southern California for the funeral—which a group of his friends from Berkeley will attend.
A message written by Wootton, placed below his picture at the memorial site in front of Sigma Pi reads, “I want to focus the rest of my life on being a good man and improving myself as much as possible. I am also always looking to have some fun, make some friends and live some good stories. Life is simple, focus on the people and things you love—Chris.”
Next to it, his girlfriend Brandy, wrote: “I’m so sorry this happened baby. Please watch over me. I need you.”
Most of Wootton’s pledge brothers described him as their “big brother.”
“We are similar in a lot of ways,” said one. “He was always standing up for us, sacrificing for the good of the group. A really good role model. If people were bored, he would come in and make the party fun.”
Ryan Rudnitsky, another of Wootton’s fraternity brothers, said he had known Chris since he was a freshman.
“He was a very charismatic person,” Rudnitsky told the Planet. “Everybody loved his personality. He was someone that could get a whole group excited to do an activity. He just had that appeal to everyone.”
Rudnitsky said Wootton was concentrating on alternative energy methods and had a 3.85 GPA.
“He loved the fraternity,” he said. “He took so many positions in the house and still had time to get amazing grades, hang out with his girlfriend, and have his own social life. He was just a happy guy, inside and out. He had so much promise for the world.”
Pictures of Wootton with his fraternity brothers on his MySpace page show the nuclear engineering major as a fun-loving person who loved his family, friends and Jesus Christ. “I am a devoted Sigma Pi for life,” a blurb on his Stars and Striped MySpace page says.
“I am graduating this upcoming May and probably going to Graduate School to pursue a Master or Doctorate in Nuclear Engineering, or just work in the industry … or who knows?” Wootton wrote. “I can’t rock out enough and I’m a die-hard Dodger fan. I’m easy-going and enjoy reuniting with old friends so please say hello.”
But a blog entry which Wootton wrote on April 16, 2006, which has been cited by many Internet commentators on stories about his death, paints a different picture of the victim.
There Wootton recounts, in vivid language, taking part, along with six of his fraternity “bros,” in a drunken group beating of someone he accuses of having “disrespected” one of their number.
“You probably know me pretty well if you’re reading this and the word fight is most likely a shock to you coming from my weekend story but .... it has happened,” he wrote.
The nuclear engineering department held a memorial service for Chris on Monday where students shared memories about him with his family and signed condolence messages.
One of his professors, Jasmina Vujic, praised Wootton. “He was one of the best students,” said Vujic, who taught him NE162. “Very intelligent, exceptionally motivated and hard working.”
Vujic said the department had decided to honor its top student with the “Chris Wootton Best Student” award starting this year.
“Just about two weeks ago we sent him a letter informing him he had been admitted to our master’s program,” Vujic said. “He was so happy. We are all extremely heartbroken.”
Vujic said he had heard that Wootton might have been trying to be a peacemaker when he was killed.
“Chris’s brother told me that Chris had called 911 to say somebody had a knife and that he wanted to break up a fight,” Vujic said. “The question everyone is asking is why he wasn’t taken to a nearer hospital, regardless of all the hospitals being full, and instead taken to Castro Valley.”
The last murder of a UC Berkeley student was in 1998, when 20-year-old Kenneth Ishida, a UC Berkeley senior, was kidnapped from the garage of his Channing Way apartment building by a Richmond couple and found shot to death in a downtown Vallejo alley.