Crime

‘A disgusting act’: How the murder of Syracuse University student Xiaopeng ‘Pippen’ Yuan unfolded

Sam Ogozalek | Asst. News Editor

Xiaopeng "Pippen" Yuan, an SU student from China, was found dead last fall at the Springfield Gardens apartment complex in DeWitt.

It was the second gunshot that killed Xiaopeng “Pippen” Yuan. The bullet entered his right side, traversed his chest and almost immediately caused his death.

Shortly before 1 p.m. on Sept. 30, 2016, the Syracuse University student lay face down in a grassy section of the Springfield Garden Apartments complex, soaking in his own blood.

Yuan had come to the apartment complex in DeWitt that fall afternoon to sell marijuana. Instead, he was robbed of the marijuana and killed.

On Tuesday, more than 10 months after Yuan’s death, a jury found a North Syracuse man guilty of murdering him. Cameron Isaac, 24, was convicted on a first-degree murder charge.

Jurors have not yet delivered their verdict for the case’s other defendant, Ninimbe Mitchell, 20, who is charged with second-degree murder. Jurors will resume deliberations pertaining to Mitchell’s charge on Wednesday morning.

Prosecutors alleged that Isaac robbed Yuan of two pounds of marijuana before killing him, and that Mitchell acted as a willing accomplice by driving him to and from the incident.

When authorities arrived at the apartment complex just after 1 p.m. on Sept. 30, they found Yuan’s Chevrolet Camaro in the complex’s parking lot, with the engine running and the driver’s side door open. Inside, they found marijuana and Yuan’s cellphone.

They also found a tattoo on Yuan’s body of six digits: 62.07.09. They’re the digits of Yuan’s mother’s birthdate: July 9, 1962. More importantly to authorities, those six digits were also the password to Yuan’s phone.

Authorities unlocked his phone and, with that, began to retrace the steps leading to his murder. On his phone, they found text messages he had sent to Isaac to arrange what Yuan thought was a standard drug deal.

From there, authorities used more text messages, videos, phone records and cell tower information to trace the murder directly to Isaac.

The conviction of Isaac on Tuesday marked the end of his trial spanning seven days. During those seven days, the prosecution and witnesses described the events leading to Yuan’s death, characterizing him as a naive college student whom Isaac and Mitchell took advantage of.

“This was a disgusting act,” Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick said Monday. “They took (Yuan’s) life away.”

•••

The first communication between Isaac and Yuan came on Aug. 25 of last year. Isaac, who got Yuan’s number from a mutual friend, texted the SU student that he wanted to buy an eighth of marijuana. They arranged to meet at a pizza shop near Le Moyne College, where Isaac falsely told Yuan he was a student.

At that point, Isaac was simply scouting Yuan out, prosecutors believe.

Isaac texted Yuan again on Aug. 27, when the two agreed that Yuan would eventually sell Isaac two pounds of marijuana.

That same day, Isaac texted his friend Mykell Ross that he was “drawing up a play” in reference to his deal with Yuan. Laura Collins, a detective with the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office and the lead detective on the case, testified during the trial that “drawing up a play” means planning a robbery.

It was around that time when Yuan asked a fellow SU student to order him a shipment of four pounds of marijuana. The student, who has since graduated, testified during the trial that, while at SU, he received shipments every two to three weeks of between one and four pounds of marijuana. The Daily Orange is not identifying the student because he was never charged with a crime.

Yuan planned to make thousands of dollars off those four pounds of marijuana, in part by selling half of it to Isaac.

“(Yuan) didn’t have a clue what he was getting himself into,” said Fitzpatrick, the district attorney.

Isaac didn’t have a driver’s license, which is why prosecutors said he enlisted the help of Mitchell, his nephew. Mitchell’s attorney, Paul Carey, has argued that Mitchell was unaware of Isaac’s plan to rob Yuan and was simply an “Uber driver” for him.

In the days after agreeing to buy two pounds of marijuana from Yuan, Isaac was incessant on arranging a time to meet. He texted Yuan on Aug. 28, Aug. 29, Sept. 1 and Sept. 4.

Yuan didn’t return Isaac’s messages on Sept. 1 or Sept. 4. For the next few weeks, the two didn’t communicate. Isaac had apparently moved on.

Then, on Sept. 30, Yuan texted Isaac.

“U still need bud?”

•••

On the morning of Sept. 30, Yuan received a text from the other SU student informing him that the marijuana had been delivered.

Yuan arrived at the student’s South Campus apartment on Small Road some time between 10 and 11 a.m. that day. He stayed there for about 45 minutes before leaving with two of the four pounds of marijuana.

Yuan returned to the student’s apartment around noon that day to retrieve the remaining two pounds of marijuana. The student said they chatted for a few minutes before Yuan left.

He seemed both nervous and in a rush to leave, the former student testified during the trial. Yuan mentioned to the student that he planned to sell the two pounds of marijuana to a person in DeWitt that afternoon.

“I told him it seemed fishy to sell two pounds of pot to someone he didn’t know,” the student said during the trial last week.

But Yuan told the student that he would be fine and not to worry. Between noon and 12:30 p.m., Yuan left the apartment and drove toward the Springfield Garden Apartments complex. He called Isaac at 12:36 p.m. At 12:39 p.m., he pulled into the parking lot of the complex where his Camaro would later be discovered.

The former student never heard from Yuan again.

•••

Isaac spent the night of Sept. 29 with Mitchell at Isaac’s apartment in North Syracuse. The next morning, Yuan texted him and asked if he still wanted to buy the marijuana. The two made plans to meet that day at the complex in DeWitt.

At 11:52 a.m., the cellphones belonging to Isaac and Mitchell were tracked as beginning to move south toward DeWitt, cellphone-mapping expert Rafal Dobrowolski testified during trial. Dobrowolski, an investigator for Onondaga County, uses cell tower “pings” to locate cellphones at a given time.

Video footage captured Mitchell’s black BMW driving on streets near the apartment complex in the minutes leading up to Yuan’s death. Sometime after 12:36 p.m., Mitchell dropped Isaac off and parked the BMW on Northway Street, where a paved path in the apartment complex leads to.

At 12:48 p.m., an individual detectives say was Isaac walked into the parking lot where Yuan’s car was found.

Prosecutors were unsure of exactly how the ensuing events played out. In some fashion, though, Isaac allegedly took the 2 pounds of marijuana from Yuan without paying and ran. Yuan then chased after Isaac and, while he did, prosecutors alleged that Isaac shot him twice with a revolver — first with a nonfatal shot to the back and then with the fatal shot to Yuan’s right side.

The 911 call reporting gunshots was made at 12:51 p.m.

Prosecutors alleged that after killing Yuan, Isaac ran down the paved pathway in the complex to Northway Street, where he got into the BMW. Mitchell and Isaac drove from there to a Cricket Wireless store to purchase Isaac a new phone with a new number, and then to a nearby convenient store to buy blunt wraps and drinks before returning to North Syracuse.

Isaac and Mitchell were arrested 47 days later.

“This was a ripoff that went awry,” Fitzpatrick said during the trial. “And it cost Xiaopeng Yuan his life.”

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