One year has passed since Wasim Mohammad got the call from his wife. Something had happened at UC Merced, she told him. Something with their son, Faisal.
Mohammad, a soft-spoken 51-year-old software engineer in the Silicon Valley, went home to wait. Perhaps he’d have to go pick up Faisal, who was barely two months into his freshman year. “I was just sitting on my bed, expecting a call from him. ... I’m going to get a call,” he said, as his voice began to waver.
“Instead of that call, somebody knocked on the door. And at the door was the FBI.”
The family was stunned to hear their 17-year-old son had carried out a stabbing spree at UC Merced, wounding four people before he was shot by a campus police officer and killed.
“It’s just worse than a nightmare,” Mohammad said.
This week, during a 90-minute interview with the Merced Sun-Star, Mohammad recounted how since Nov. 4, 2015, he and his family have been at a loss to understand what happened. How did their son, a student who excelled in science and planned to study medicine, go from one day calling his mother to make plans to come home, to the next launching an attack that provoked his own death?
“We really don’t know what happened,” Mohammad said. “As a parent, we’d really like to know because we gave UC Merced a pretty healthy kid. ... All of a sudden, one day, a disaster and we have no clue what led to that.”
Family doubts terrorism link
All they know is what authorities have said in brief statements, including a March news release from the FBI that said investigators believed Faisal “may have self-radicalized and drawn inspiration from terrorist propaganda.”
Mohammad and his wife, Nargis, engineers originally from Pakistan, have searched for any signals that may have been missed. Mohammad, who said his wife finds it too difficult to talk publicly about their son, said the idea that Faisal was inspired by religious terrorism is mistaken.
“Unfortunately the political environment is so disgusting,” he said, “that if anybody does anything, they just come to one conclusion – radicalization or terrorism, those kinds of things. Those are the buzzwords in politics. It’s just an easy scapegoat, rather than looking at a kid who spent his entire life to be a decent person and working hard, doing all the positive things in life.”
Soon after the violence, authorities said they had recovered a two-page, handwritten note that described Faisal’s plans to take students hostage in order to attract a police officer, who would have a gun he could take. The note reportedly said he intended to use the gun to kill other students back at his residence hall.
But the family said it has never been allowed to see the note, nor any of the reports compiled by police, prosecutors, the Merced County Sheriff’s Office or the FBI.
Requests for info rejected
Dan Mayfield, a Santa Clara attorney who has represented the family, said his requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act and the state Public Records Act have been rejected for reasons that have not been fully revealed. An appeal of those rejections also was rebuffed, with the Justice Department saying in July only that the information sought was exempt from required disclosure.
“It’s not that we’re saying that they’re covering something up. It’s not that we’re saying that they’re lying to us,” Mayfield said. “It’s just what any parent would want ... to know what happened.”
Dressed casually in jeans, a blue shirt and a brown hoodie, Mohammad said the family is much like any other family in the Silicon Valley. Faisal and his siblings, all born in the United States, attended public schools and spoke English as their only language. Their dinner conversations were that of any typical family. “We never spoke of politics at home,” he said. “As a family, at the dinner table, there was no radicalization.”
Faisal had planned on attending Boston University in hopes of becoming a doctor like his uncle, Mohammad said. But he was recruited to UC Merced and the family thought it best that the teen – who still didn’t drive on his own – be closer to home. During his short time at Merced, Faisal came home to Santa Clara every two weeks to spend time with family and friends, Mohammad said. He called his mother every day. And while he wasn’t a particularly outgoing kid, Mohammad said, he seemed to be adjusting well to college.
“As a parent, I’m kind of baffled,” Mohammad said. “What happened in those two or three months that went so severe?”
Mohammad and a close family friend, Humayun Sohel, whose son grew up with Faisal, said it makes no sense.
“The Faisal we sent to Merced was not the person who would have committed these kinds of actions under any circumstances,” said Sohel, who participated in the interview Monday by phone.
The idea that Faisal would have drafted a “master plan” for violence “is totally, totally, totally inconsistent with the personality of the person we know.”
A toxicology report conducted on Faisal’s body found no evidence of drugs, Mayfield said.
No clear answers
Early on, authorities suggested Faisal had been angered because he’d been kicked out of a study group. But, Mohammad said, this has not been confirmed. He said that while Faisal had struggled in a general-education course called “The World at Home,” he was working with the professor to bring up his grade.
UC Merced declined Friday to comment specifically on Faisal’s time at the campus.
“UC Merced officials have been in contact with the student’s family and are working to address their concerns in cooperation with several other agencies,” spokesman James Leonard said in a statement. “Given the sensitive nature of this situation and with respect to the privacy of all those involved, we feel it would be inappropriate to comment further at this time.”
The suggestion that Faisal decided to act as a “lone-wolf” attacker inspired by terrorism is without basis, according to Mohammad, Sohel and Mayfield.
“There is nothing to back that up,” Mohammad said. “You have to look at his entire life. ... If someone is showing that kind of mentality or mindset, somebody is going to notice that.”
Added Mayfield: “We don’t think that. We don’t believe that. When you ask a question, you have to be willing to accept when something bad comes back. But we’ve got nothing.”
Mohammad and Sohel both expressed their sorrow over the attack and extended their sympathies to those who were hurt. And Mohammad expressed his appreciation for the support offered by the community, particularly from Santa Clara and the schools he attended.
“We are very sorry for what happened,” Mohammad said. “At the same time, I would like to say, please, don’t make any judgment about Faisal. He spent his entire life to be a good citizen and a good son to the family. Unfortunately, he is not able to defend himself.”
Mohammad said that since his son’s death, he has searched Faisal’s email accounts trying to find any message that he may have left for the family.
“We could not find anything,” he said. “We could not find anything.”