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UMKC pushed false narrative after student from India was killed in KC restaurant

Still new in her job as head of international student affairs, Joy Stevenson was checking email around midnight last July 6 when she saw an urgent message from her aide at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Subject: student death. Importance: High.

“Hi there,” the assistant’s note began. “I got a call about 20 minutes ago from UMKC police that one of our International students was shot and killed tonight. He was working at a restaurant on Prospect, and it was held up, and unfortunately the student didn’t make it...”

A popular grab-and-go joint on Kansas City’s East Side, J’s Fish and Chicken Market had been busy that sweltering Friday night. A floor fan by the front counter stirred the sticky kitchen air. Sharath Koppu’s white apron flapped like a sail whenever the 24-year-old grad student from India took orders for spicy chicken wings, hush puppies and batter-fried catfish.

The supper rush was slowing. The other cashier took a seat. Then, shortly after 7, a man with shoulder-length dreadlocks pushed his way up to Koppu’s window, waving a handgun.

“Give me the money!” Marlin Mack demanded as customers fled.

Koppu and the other employees darted for cover as Mack fired three shots before running away empty handed. Koppu alone was hit. The .40-caliber slug entered his lower back, passing through the liver, pancreas and aorta before exiting his upper abdomen.

“Death would have followed such injuries rapidly,” the autopsy report later said.

Koppu died soon after falling on the kitchen floor. It would take the better part of a day for top UMKC officials to craft a false narrative about why he was there that night: He wasn’t “working,” they said. He was “assisting family friends.”

UMKC stuck with that story until last week when, pressed by The Star, they acknowledged that they did not know whether their portrayal was accurate.

In fact, Koppu was working at the restaurant, his father in India and his cousin in America said. His father said he had planned to quit on the day he was killed.

The Star reviewed more than 2,100 pages of emails and other documents obtained through an open records request to understand what might have motivated the university to change the facts. Step by step, the emails provide a glimpse into how — and perhaps why — that narrative came about.

Koppu’s off-campus job violated his F1 visa, which could have led to a federal investigation and put UMKC’s lucrative international student enrollment at risk. A precipitous drop in foreign students had already cost the university millions of dollars.

“I highly doubt he had work authorization,” Stevenson’s second in command wrote her the day after Koppu’s murder.

“Exactly what I thought and something we need to anticipate in terms of questions,” Stevenson replied.

Throughout the correspondence, school administrators expressed compassion for Koppu’s grieving family. Their messages dealt with the grim details for transporting the body 8,000 miles back home to India and refunding tuition payments and fees to his parents.

But strikingly, the documents show how top school officials from Chancellor Mauli Agrawal on down never lost sight of how the killing could undermine university efforts to grow its international student population.

Stevenson and her boss, Vice Provost for International Initiatives Kevin Truman, rejected the university PR staff’s first inclination, which was to quote the police department’s account of what Koppu was doing when he was killed.

UMKC’s media relations director John Martellaro couldn’t understand the point of erasing all references to Koppu’s employment at the restaurant.

“I think saying he worked there is vital to establishing that he was an innocent victim, and not someone who was engaged in violent activity,” Martellaro wrote his boss Anne Spenner, vice chancellor for strategic marketing and communications. “I doubt the legal formalities will come into play here.”

Truman pushed back. He didn’t want the university to acknowledge that Koppu was employed by the restaurant, even though the police said he was working there.

“Let’s not emphasize where he worked. I doubt that he had a work authorization,” Truman, the third official to cite that concern, wrote Spenner after seeing a draft of a public statement she’d planned to release.

Stevenson agreed. Instead of saying he was working at the restaurant, she recommended that UMKC say that he was “assisting a family friend,” as if he was helping out for free and, therefore, not in violation of his F1 visa. She gave no evidence to suggest the statement was true.

“Kevin and I spoke and still prefer using the word ‘assisting’ rather than working in line two of the media statement,” Stevenson wrote Spenner, “and ‘at the restaurant where he assisted’ at the end of the first paragraph in the Chancellor’s letter to the campus.”

The emails do not reflect Spenner’s views on changing the wording, but in the end she did as directed and sent out a statement under Agrawal’s signature that began this way:

“To the UMKC Community: It is my sad duty to inform you that a member of our community was killed Friday evening during an armed robbery at the restaurant where he was assisting family friends….”

UMKC officials maintained that message over the last year. Only one slip-up occurred, when three days after the killing a member of the university’s media relations staff used “working” in an online publication discussing Koppu’s death.

Minutes after the gaffe, a program coordinator at the UMKC computing school that Koppu attended reminded her colleague in strategic marketing and communications that “it would be smart to get that updated to match the Chancellor’s statement that he (Koppu) was ‘assisting family friends.’”

The colleague then passed that tip on to the woman who wrote the article: “Due to his international status, I think they’re asking that we’re just consistent with the Chancellor’s message in how we talk about what he was doing there.”

Shortly afterward, the change was made and Koppu was once again “assisting” rather than “working.”

Why insist on that narrative? Experts on international student enrollment think they know why.

“No university following university guidelines would knowingly allow a student to do what that student did,” said Gary Bergman, founder and president of University Study. Bergman works with universities to recruit international students from around the world.

“For the university to try to cover this up only means that they or someone on their staff were knowingly violating policy and they were aware. Why else would they cover it up? That is the only reason I can figure. The professional response would be to say the staff had no knowledge.”

Another expert was equally perplexed.

“If the university knew that this student or any student was working on an F1 visa they are required to report that information to the DHS (Department of Homeland Security),” said Christopher McKinney, an immigration attorney who has provided legal guidance to many international students in the Kansas City area.

Failure to do so, he said, could lead to an investigation of a university’s international student program, which could result in a university being suspended from the federal program that allows schools to enroll international students.

BEHIND OUR REPORTING

What put us onto the story:

Three days after University of Missouri-Kansas City graduate student Sharath Koppu was gunned down at a fast food restaurant where he was working, Kansas City Star reporter Mará Rose Williams interviewed students on campus about his death.

But whenever the subject of his employment arose, a UMKC public relations staff member would interject to say Koppu was not working at J’s Fish and Chicken Market. He was “assisting family friends.”

Williams found that strange and later teamed with her colleague Mike Hendricks to learn why UMKC wanted to deny Koppu had been working. Read more by clicking the arrow in the upper right.

Documents and sources we used:

Williams and Hendricks searched the internet and social media to learn everything they could about Koppu and his family, as well as how the crime was covered by the news media here and in his home country of India. They analyzed publicly available business records on the restaurant where he was killed, and researched U.S. labor laws and regulations that govern the hiring of foreign students with F-1 visa.

Through use of Missouri’s Sunshine Law, they requested and received copies of the complete police case file on the crime — including video surveillance showing the shooting — Koppu’s autopsy report and all internal UMKC emails and other communication about his death. It took weeks to get the police file and months before the university’s records arrived.

From the 2,100 pages of lightly redacted documents provided by the UM Custodian of Records, Hendricks and Williams identified dozens of emails sent among the UMKC officials quoted throughout this story. The story is largely based on that email correspondence.

Who we talked to:

The Star’s reporters interviewed state taxing officials, immigration attorneys, international student recruiters in the U.S. and in India, as well as UMKC students and officials at the Department of Homeland Security. We spoke with or communicated via email with members of Koppu’s family, the restaurant owner and one of Koppu’s co-workers, who The Star learned was also not allowed by law to work at the fast food restaurant. UMKC declined The Star’s request for sit-down interviews with administration officials and insisted that questions be submitted in writing. Officials then refused to answer follow-up questions about their initial answers.

Carissa Cutrell, a spokesperson with DHS, said the federal department could not discuss specific cases. But she said schools have had their certification to enroll international students “withdrawn for violating U.S. regulations, and criminal charges have been levied against individuals who engaged in student visa fraud.”

Truman said last week that he’s not aware of any investigation of UMKC. Stevenson denies that any members of her staff were aware then or now that Koppu was working in violation of his visa.

“I do not know of anyone on our staff who had any knowledge of off-campus employment by Mr. Koppu,” Stevenson wrote The Star.

Like Truman and Spenner, Stevenson declined a face-to-face interview. But when asked in writing about the university’s decision to remove all mention of Koppu working at the restaurant, their written responses were similar.

“When our UMKC strategic communications staff worked to independently verify information from media reports, police could not confirm that Koppu was actually a paid employee of the restaurant,” Spenner said in an email.

Wrote Truman: “I did not want the Chancellor or UMKC to give the impression that he was working for pay there, as UMKC didn’t know the facts surrounding this relationship, nor does UMKC monitor students’ personal lives.”

Yet university officials were willing to offer the explanation that he was “assisting family friends” based on hearsay alone.

“Some School of Computing and Engineering faculty recalled hearing that the family that owned the restaurant had befriended the student,” Spenner said. “Given that we had no knowledge of whether he was an actual paid employee, we changed the wording to ‘assisting family friends.’”

Neither Spenner nor Stevenson answered follow-up questions similar to this one posed to Truman:

“Why say he was assisting family friends when, as you mentioned, UMKC didn’t know the facts surrounding this relationship?”

Truman refused to explain his motivation.

“Thank you for your email,” he wrote back. “I have nothing further to add to my answers at this time.”

American dreamer

Koppu began work on his master’s degree at UMKC’s school of computing and engineering in January 2018. He arrived in the United States brimming with starry optimism and the goal of getting an education that would allow him to “make it BIG in the land of opportunity,” according to the GoFundMe page created to help pay funeral expenses.

Koppu did not come from money. He saved up for his chance at the American Dream. After earning his undergraduate degree in India, he’d worked three-plus years at a software company in Hyderabad, India’s fifth largest city and one of that country’s tech centers.

While at Pega Systems, he also further developed the skills that, according to Koppu’s LinkedIn profile, once won him a Guinness World Record for writing computer code.

“Not just talented in terms of technical development and architecture, though, he is also an excellent colleague,” his manager at Pega Systems wrote on Koppu’s LinkedIn page a month before the shooting.

Likewise, fellow students at UMKC found Koppu helpful. They saw in him a gentle soul. Always smiling, he indulged his deep curiosity about his new hometown.

“He has a good heart, helping nature and he loved Kansas City,” one of his school friends told school officials soon after his death. “He has been to every monument, every place which makes our KC proud given his short stay of 6 months at KC.”

Koppu was the youngest in a family of four. His dad worked for India’s biggest telecom company and his mom held a government job.

His parents and big sister didn’t learn that he was bound for school in the United States until after he secured his F1 student visa a month before classes were to begin for the 2018 spring semester.

Before the U.S. government will grant foreign students permission to study here, applicants must swear in writing that they have sufficient funds to cover tuition, room and board for their first year.

Koppu’s certificate of eligibility for non-immigrant student status shows that he came to Kansas City with $28,304 in personal funds and had also received an $8,000 scholarship from UMKC.

That just matched the $36,234 that UMKC estimates it would cost a grad student from overseas in Koppu’s field of study to attend school for nine months.

Which left him $70 for walking-around money. So Koppu did what a lot of international students do in their first year of grad school, he got one of a limited number of on-campus part-time jobs. Catering jobs like the one Koppu landed pay around $10 an hour.

But that job ended with the semester so he found a job off campus in violation of the terms of his student visa. Upon their arrival at UMKC, international students must attend orientation sessions where they are told that off-campus work is forbidden, the university says.

“They tell us always never to do it,” said Kavin Kumar, a 22-year-old student from India studying for a master’s degree in computer science at UMKC.

The other cashier

When police arrived at 5412 Prospect Ave., Shravan Bussa was out front, waving them into the kitchen of J’s Fish and Chicken Market where they found a man lying face down in a pool of blood.

One officer found a faint pulse, but efforts to revive Koppu failed and a half hour later he was declared dead on arrival at Research Medical Center.

Bussa, 22, was frantic and incoherent when a homicide detective questioned him that night, so they arranged an interview for later.

He was the other man taking food orders from customers through an open window. He had sat down moments before the gunfire. No wonder he was jittery now.

Koppu was killed by the first of those bullets. Bussa narrowly escaped the third by curling up under the counter as Koppu and kitchen worker Onesimo Torres, 24, ran for the back exit.

Bussa was two and a half years younger than Koppu, who would have turned 25 the day after UMKC fall classes began in August. They barely knew each other, but the pair had three things in common.

Both were working on master’s degrees in computer science, albeit at different schools. Koppu was in his first year at UMKC, while Bussa was two semesters away from finishing his degree across town at the University of Central Missouri’s Lee’s Summit campus.

Second, they’d both earned bachelor’s degrees at technical colleges in India’s Hyderabad region, a leading source of grad students seeking advanced technology degrees at U.S. universities.

And finally, both men did not have authorization to work off campus at a fast food place.

When reached by phone recently, the restaurant’s owner, Tahir Mahmood of Olathe, declined to discuss their employment eligibility. He denied that Koppu was an employee.

“He really never did work for me,” Mahmood said. “He just happened to be at the wrong time, wrong place.”

He further denied knowing Bussa, although the police case file puts both men at the restaurant in the hour after the killing. Mahmood showed up to sign a form giving police permission to review the surveillance video recordings from the restaurant’s eight cameras.

He told The Star that he felt uncomfortable answering a reporter’s questions about the crime.

“I want to put it behind me,” Mahmood said, “but it keeps coming in front of me.”

He later did not respond to written questions sent by certified mail.

Since 1986, U.S. employers have been required by law to verify that prospective employees are eligible to work in this country. To qualify for a job, one must either be a citizen, a resident alien (a green card holder), or have a special visa or other official documents proving employment eligibility.

“Employers who hire or continue to employ individuals knowing that they are not authorized to be employed in the United States may face civil and criminal penalties,” according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Employers are also at risk of being investigated by state and federal taxing agencies for failure to collect withholding taxes from ineligible employees who are often paid under the table.

Mahmood declined to discuss whether the restaurant is being investigated for violating either sets of laws as a result of Koppu’s death.

“I have nothing further to say,” he said.

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, commonly known as ICE, said it could find no records of any enforcement action being taken against the restaurant.

That does not mean the government has no interest, ICE said. Ongoing investigations would not be a matter of public record.

Bussa graduated in May, and denied in an interview on Memorial Day that he was employed at the restaurant on the night Koppu was killed. However, he did acknowledge being there, in the kitchen, and could not explain why in a surveillance video he was shown wearing an apron and waiting on customers.

He gave a different story to Kansas City police the week after Koppu’s death. According to the case file, when he sat for his formal interview at police headquarters six days after the shooting, Bussa did not dispute that he was working and said that the restaurant was owned “by a family friend.”

That’s the same phrase that, by then, UMKC had been using in all its references to the crime.

In speaking with The Star recently, Bussa said that the family friend was Shahid Mahmood. Someone with that name who lives in Lenexa is part owner of the restaurant. Tahir Mahmood, the owner who lives in Olathe, declined to say how they are related.

Shahid Mahmood did not respond to requests for comment.

The University of Central Missouri didn’t learn until this spring that Bussa had been a cashier at the restaurant on the night of Koppu’s death, but officials acted decisively when they did.

Bussa said UCM late last month canceled his visa, which he said would have allowed him to qualify for on-the-job training with a U.S. company. He told school officials he was not working at the restaurant, he said, but they didn’t believe him. The Star, in the reporting of this story, had asked the university about his work status.

“If the university is notified we are required to take action,” Shellie Hewitt, UCM director of graduate and international student services, said. “All international students know this. We do a good job of educating students. We send reminders every semester.”

Enrollment concerns

Koppu’s killing stunned the UMKC campus. So tragic to see such a promising life lost. But his death also became a public relations challenge with the power to disrupt efforts the university had been making to boost enrollment, especially among international students.

“Although this student’s death appears to be the result of a random crime, our students and campus suffered a significant impact from the Olathe hate crime last year that ended up with a UMKC alum being shot and injured. This is another terrible blow,” Spenner wrote in another email the day after the killing.

International recruiting experts said UMKC had reason to worry that Koppu’s slaying could slow enrollment of students from India, who make up a large percentage of the university’s computing and engineering school.

“Whenever something bad happens in the U.S. it can cause a downward trend in recruitment of students into the U.S. It definitely can harm the reputation of a city,” said Jennifer Wright, director of certification at the American International Recruitment Council. The council oversees agents who are paid a commission by colleges and universities to recruit international students to their schools.

In 2009, after Indian students were victims of violence in Melbourne, Australia, the news “led to an impression that Australia is generally unsafe for Indian students, and the impact was that student numbers to Australia dipped by 90% within a year,” said Ravi Lochan Singh, a recruiter living in India.

Indian news coverage can be “severe,” Singh said. Violence in the United States gets close coverage, especially when the victims are from India. Sometimes news articles speculate, without evidence, that racism is at the core of what is more likely random violence.

That was the case here. Police said Koppu’s death was not a hate crime like the shooting death of a Garmin engineer from India the previous year in Olathe. Koppu was not singled out by the African American shooter because of his race or ethnicity. Three of the other kitchen workers were Latino, while Bussa was also from India.

Some people in India, however, would not believe his death was random and held him up as a martyr in a video.

“Thus a little bit of anxiety does exist and has started developing,” Singh said. “I will not make a general statement that students are staying away from Kansas City, but an apprehension does exist.”

UMKC recognized that on the day after Koppu’s killing. Chancellor Agrawal worried how the crime would play in India. He asked Spenner to write a letter of reassurance for Indian students on campus to share with their friends back home.

“How best to publicize this letter so that it is available for all prospective international students?” he asked her in an email that included a postscript for Truman and Provost Barbara Bichelmeyer.

“Barb and Kevin,” the PS said, “the Indian students asked for a letter like this because they are being pinged by prospective students from India.”

A continuing flow of students from overseas is important to the success of UMKC’s international program whose “primary goals,” university officials say, “involve workforce development and diversity.”

But for years international student enrollment at public universities like UMKC has also been a source of needed money. With state support for higher education shrinking, these schools have become ever more dependent on tuition and fees from international students, who typically pay non-discounted out-of-state tuition rates that are far higher than what in-state students pay.

The number of new international students getting F1 visa status to study in the U.S., however, has plunged from 678,000 a year in 2015 to just 390,000 in 2018. The reasons vary, from tougher visa rules, to the anti-immigrant statements from President Donald Trump and his allies, as well as competition for these students from schools in other countries — Australia and Canada, for example.

At UMKC, international student enrollment peaked at 1,442 in 2015 and most of those students were from India. By 2018 the international student number had fallen to 1,039 and the Indian student population dropped by more than half, from 709 to 312. A loss of 397 international students represents an estimated loss of about $5 million per semester based on today’s tuition rate and each student carrying a 12-credit-hour study schedule.

That plunge affected UMKC’s finances. At a 2017 budget meeting, UMKC vice chancellor for finance and administration Sharon Lindenbaum placed blame for a multi-million dollar shortfall in university revenues mainly on international student enrollment, “which dropped significantly.”

University leaders indicated in other internal documents that they might be hard pressed to replace lost tuition revenues should the “fertile international student market” dry up.

That concern continues. At a UMKC budget committee meeting last fall, new Chancellor Agrawal said his biggest concern was enrollment. “We simply cannot let enrollment go lower. If enrollment continues to decline, we will simply run out of resources… ,” Agrawal said.

When Stevenson took charge in May 2018, UMKC’s international student affairs office had been without a full-time director for more than a year. Her predecessor had also been the head of admissions.

Now with a new title — director of international affairs — and a sharper focus, the position Stevenson took on listed among its many duties a responsibility for boosting international student enrollment. That was something she’d done successfully during a decades-long career at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg.

She came out of retirement to take the UMKC job. Barely two months into it, Koppu was killed.

It wasn’t the first time she’d been faced with managing through such a tragedy, she said in an email to one of her assistants on the day after the killing.

“I have been involved in car deaths, AIDS deaths, students shot to death and an accused shooter later found innocent,” she said. “Each one is terribly painful for the whole community and a crisis in many ways, large and small.”

But this case was different, as one of Koppu’s professors expressed in a message to some of his colleagues the night after the murder.

“Very shocking,” Masud Chowdhury wrote. “I am wondering how painful and devastating it is for his family. They sent their son for a better education and career to us. And we couldn’t protect him….”

Great risk

Sharath Koppu put his future at risk by working at the restaurant. Had he been found out before the robbery, he could have been kicked out of school and sent home without getting the degree that he hoped would have been his ticket to success.

His cousin Raghu Chowdavaram doesn’t know how Koppu came to get the job. Koppu worked at the restaurant a few weeks, Chowdavaram said. The restaurant owner told him he’d gotten to know Koppu through some contact at a cultural festival in Kansas City.

But they weren’t family.

“I don’t know exactly how they got to meet each other,” Chowdavaram said.

Koppu’s father, Ram Mohan Koppu, was not pleased when he learned that his son was working illegally and advised him against it. But he also understood why he would want to find work during the summer break.

“Many of our children who go to the US for studies take up petty jobs to make pocket money so as to avoid putting more financial stress on their parents,” he would later tell an Indian newspaper.

Still, he worried about both the visa considerations and his son’s safety.

The last time they spoke on the phone was on the day of the shooting, he told The Times of India.

“He said he was doing it only to keep himself busy,” the father said. “He said it would be his last day at work there and he would not go back...But that last day turned out to be the last day of his life.”

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Mike Hendricks is a member of The Star’s investigations and watchdog reporting team. Send tips and story ideas in confidence by email to mhendricks@kcstar.com, Twitter direct message @kcmikehendricks, or anonymously via Signal encrypted message at 816-234-4738
Mará has written on all things education for The Star for 20 years, including issues of school safety, teen suicide, universal pre-K programs, college costs, campus protests and university branding.
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