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Saturday, Jan 28, 2023

Cause of Mercer student's death remains a mystery

Investigators still don't know what caused Mercer international student Zhang Tianliang* to be found dead in his apartment about a block away from campus Thursday, Mar, 31.

Zhang, a 24-year-old graduate engineering student from Yinchuan City, China, was found lying unconscious in his bed around 4 p.m. by his roommates at 1252 Shamrock Lane, Bibb County Coroner Leon Jones said. There were no signs of foul play.

An autopsy performed the following day on Zhang's body came back inconclusive. Toxicology and histology reports were sent to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation for futher testing to determine the cause of death, but those results could take as long as two to three months to receive, Jones said.

Zhang was last seen alive that Tuesday night, and he appeared to have been dead for at least a day, Jones said. No bodily injuries were visible, and he had no history of medical problems.

Jones said he doesn't know what could have caused Zhang’s death and that it’s abornmal for autopsy reports to come back inconclusive.

“When you’ve got a 24-year-old healthy kid dead like this, it looks suspicious to me. Every once in a while, I get a case where I break down and cry. This was one of them,” Jones said.

Macon Police spokeswoman Jami Gaudet said police do not suspect foul play at this time, but an investigation into the incident will continue until the cause of death can be determined.

Mercer’s chief of staff Larry Brumley said University administrators notified Zhang’s next of kin in China of his death late Thursday evening, then transported his body to a funeral home in Decatur specializing in Chinese burials over the weekend.

Four of Zhang’s family members were granted temporary Visas by the U.S. Consulate to travel to Macon from China to view Zhang’s body mid-last week, including his parents, uncle and cousin.


Zhang's family and about 65 students and faculty attended a campus-wide memorial service in Newton Chapel this past Monday in his honor.

Junior Laurel McCormack, who spoke at the service, recalled first meeting Zhang when he came to Mercer last August.

“I sat next to him at dinner that first night. He was always a very calm, funny and helpful guy. He’ll definitely be missed,” McCormack said.

McCormack said Zhang's friends at Mercer called him John for short.

Zhang's roommate Luis Flores said some of his fondest memories about John include his cooking skills and his dedication to family.

"John's fried rice was the best. My mouth always watered when I smelled it coming from the kitchen. We also always had great conversations together, and he always told me his family was above all," Flores said.

Eric Spears, director of international programs, said the University has been working to offer Zhang’s family members as much support as possible during their time of need.

“Any time a student dies, it’s tragic, but this is especially tragic because of the cultural implications of the one-child rule in China. Their family has essentially lost a whole generation now,” Spears said.

Junior Kelly Ferill, a close friend of Zhang’s and a member of Baptist Collegiate Ministries, said BCM has raised an estimated $300 to give to Zhang’s family to help cover funeral and transportation costs.

“We wanted to show his family that he was loved here at Mercer,” Ferrill said.

Zhang’s cousin Ivanka Tian was one of the family members in attendance at Monday's memorial service. Tian said she thought the service was a fitting tribute to Zhang’s life.

“The service was very good,” Tian said.

Tian said the family has made plans to have Zhang’s body cremated Friday at Lee's Funeral Home according to Chinese burial traditions. She added that the family would be staying in Georgia for the next two weeks to work out the details of transporting Zhang's remains back overseas.

*Name amended from official police report to reflect traditional Chinese naming system of writing family name first.


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