Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
September 25, 2023

Remembering the murder of Rex T. Chao

By WILL KIRSCH | October 27, 2016


CINDY JIANG/PHOTOGRAPHY EDITOR A statue commemorating Rex T. Chao stands on N. Charles Street, depicting Chao with his violin.

Editor's Note: The first paragraph of this article has been deleted. The writer has apologized for the insensitive tone of the piece. Read his statement here.

On N. Charles Street, near the southern edge of campus, there is a statue of a violin player, seated with his instrument at rest. The statue, which has the air of an attempt to sell Hopkins’ arts credentials, is slightly overshadowed by its larger and considerably more interesting neighbors in the Baltimore Museum of Art’s Sculpture Garden. However, that statue is no mere underwhelming Hopkins propaganda piece — it is a memorial to a murder victim whose case was rife with politics, love and jealousy.

In the spring of 1996 Rex T. Chao was in his second year at Hopkins. Chao was a talented violinist who played in the Hopkins orchestra and a rising star within the College Republican community. Indeed, on the night of April 10, 1996, he was elected chairman of Hopkins’ College Republican club — an institution known today for endorsing Donald Trump.

However, on that same night, Chao was murdered by former friend and Hopkins graduate Robert J. Harwood, Jr., a fellow Reagan Youth who had recently completed his chemistry degree. Both young men were the sort of intelligent, talented and conservative students that Hopkins has been skillfully crafting for the last 140 years. Thus, this murder raises a number of questions, the most significant of which is “Why?”

The superficial details of this crime are bizarre, and they only become more so when one delves into the salacious details. The events that led Harwood to shoot Chao dead, in the middle of campus no less, are reminiscent of an episode of Degrassi or another mediocre soap opera, albeit one which does not star a paraplegic Drake. As The Baltimore Sun reported the day after the shooting, “love and politics” were the motives, as well as an alleged sexual assault and an apparent obsession.

To back things up a bit, Harwood and Chao emerged from two very different backgrounds. Having come from a working class Rhode Island town, Harwood rose up against economic adversity armed with intelligence and work ethic. Chao was decidedly more well heeled but no less talented. Coming to Hopkins from Long Island, the skilled violinist and capable mind was the son of a successful businessman.

The two had a shared interest in conservative politics and discovered one another through the College Republican club when Chao was a freshman and Harwood a junior. The two formed a tight bond, which seemed to be purely fraternal. However, emails between the two revealed another dimension to their relationship, one that was decidedly more romantic.

The Washington Post quoted an email in their coverage of the murder in which Chao wrote to Harwood, “We once again revealed and expressed ourselves to deeper levels and found profound joy in our bond.”

Later, in a 1997 interview with The Washington Post, one of Harwood’s attorneys, David Gervasini, said there had been, “some sexual contact between the two. But I don’t believe they were gay lovers.”

Gervasini declined to further discuss the nature of Chao and Harwood’s relationship. However, after Harwood visited Chao’s home over the New Year’s weekend at the onset of 1996, their relationship soured.

Chao, who was still attending Hopkins, broke off his relationship with the newly graduated Harwood. The latter was not pleased with this decision and continued to contact Chao via phone and email, at one point saying that Chao’s “superficial involvement” with his girlfriend was preventing the two from being together.

In mid-February of 1996, Chao informed then Dean of Students Susan Boswell that Harwood was harassing him. One month later, Chao told her that Harwood owned a gun. Boswell took action, contacting Harwood and requiring him to tell campus officials when he planned to be on campus.

Following Boswell’s rules, Harwood informed University officials that he would be on campus for the election of the new College Republican club chairman, a position that Chao was running for.

On that night, April 10, Harwood distributed flyers slandering Chao to the meeting’s attendees. These flyers accused Chao of drug use as well as sexual assault perpetrated against another man — Harwood. Harwood also said that Chao was imitating him in order to take on Harwood’s former role as chairman. Despite the accusations, Chao won the election, a victory that became decidedly hollow a short time later.

When Chao left the meeting with his girlfriend, Suzanne Hubbard, Harwood followed. After catching up with Chao and having a short conversation, Harwood pulled out a .357 magnum and shot his former friend in the back of the head. When Chao fell, Harwood rolled the body over and shot his victim again, this time in the chest at close range.

Strangely enough, Harwood was not charged with murder in the first degree. Instead he was sentenced to second degree murder and illegal possession of a firearm, charges for which he is now serving 35 years.

This is a result of a guilty plea that forced Harwood to admit he was criminally responsible. Hopkins then managed to expel Harwood and deny him his diploma, which led the killer to file a lawsuit. Unsurprisingly, the court ruled in favor of the University and Harwood remained a convict with a significant amount of meaningless student debt.

Originally, Harwood had plead not guilty on grounds of insanity, probably for good reason. Before the murder, he had showed signs of mental strain, seemingly as a result Chao ending the pair’s relationship.

Harwood had also begun to accuse Chao of sexually assaulting him. The Baltimore Sun reported in 1996 that in a journal entry from the day of the murder, Harwood wrote about the tortured feelings over a sexual encounter he had with Chao.

In the same entry, Harwood debated two courses of action against Chao, neither of which involved shooting him in the head. Regardless of Harwood’s motives behind the slaying, it seems clear that he was under an extreme amount of stress. Based on his writing, he was emotionally distraught and his actions show that he had become obsessed with Chao.

Whether or not Chao assaulted Harwood remains unclear, but something pushed Harwood to murder a man that once called him “big brother.” Even now, as Harwood languishes in prison with 16 years remaining in his sentence, nobody really knows exactly why this all happened.

Rex T. Chao’s murder, while tragic, was the culmination of the truly strange and nuanced story of his relationship with Robert J. Harwood, and yet, strangely, not many students know about this less-than-savory piece of University history.

Have a tip or story idea?
Let us know!

Comments powered by Disqus

Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The News-Letter.