SAN JOSE -- There was no way for Bay Area transplants James Hong and David Wang to know that their new roommate -- a young man they neither chose to live with nor associated with -- had already marked them for death, sight unseen, when they moved in to the Isla Vista apartment last year.
And it was only by chance that George Chen shared their deadly fate. He dropped by to visit his buddies on May 23, which despondent sociopath Elliot Rodger deemed to be the "Day of Retribution," for slights he had suffered, mainly from women.
That day would end with a college town rampage that left six UC Santa Barbara students dead in the most prominent American school-related massacre since the Newtown, Connecticut, slayings, rekindling national debates over gun control and mental health awareness while sparking a flurry of online discussions on violence against women.
The three met as computer studies underclassmen -- a trio of studious progenies of Chinese immigrants. Chen, 19, and Cheng Yuan "James" Hong, 20, both of San Jose, and Weihan "David" Wang of Fremont were simply hanging out together that day at the apartment that Hong and Wang shared with 22-year-old Rodger -- a roommate they'd been assigned but whose anti-social behavior spurred them to look for new digs.
Hong's brother, who asked not to be named to protect his family's privacy, said Hong and Wang had no sense of Rodger's mental health issues. He said they had planned to move in with Chen as a third roommate but Chen backed out to live at the dorms, and an apartment manager matched the two with Rodger.
Plans to move
"The guy was playing music very loud in the middle of the night," Sherry Fang, a family friend of the Wangs, told reporters. "They complained to the manager of the apartment and were planning to move out."
But Emily Zhu, another family friend, said Wang wasn't one for confrontation or complaints, and reassured his concerned parents that everything was fine in the two-bedroom home.
"His mom and dad were worried about how they got along," she said, "and he told them 'Don't worry about me, I'll take care of myself. I'll be a good kid.'"
They were almost at the end of the term, and due to come home for summer. Zhu said the two friends had already paid a deposit and filled out required forms to move into a different apartment at the start of the school year.
But Rodger had other plans. According to a 137-page manifesto he emailed to his parents and therapists, he needed a killing floor and his roommates had to go.
He called them "nerds" and "annoying," with one having a "very rebellious demeanor."
"I knew that when the Day of Retribution came, I would have to kill my housemates to get them out of the way," he wrote. "If they were pleasant to live with, I would regret having to kill them, but due to their behavior I now had no regrets about such a prospect."
After the three were stabbed to death, Rodger moved the bloodbath outside, where he shot and killed sorority sisters Katie Cooper, 22, and Veronika Weiss, 19, in front of a sorority house and Christopher Michael-Martinez, 20, at a market. The first shots were reported at 9:27 p.m. and eight minutes later the incident was over, with 13 injured and Rodger dead by his own hand.
Shy and reserved, Hong's smile and friendly nature won over classmates and friends in high school and college. At Lynbrook High in San Jose, he was a behind-the-scenes workhorse in the drama department, and on weekends he volunteered as a teacher's assistant at Rainbow Chinese School.
"You ... will forever hold a special place in not just my heart, but also the hearts of the 50 children in my classroom who have come to love you so dearly over the last many years," wrote teacher Erika Kao in a tribute.
At UCSB, he was an avid table-tennis player -- his Facebook timeline shows a bespectacled Hong, paddle in hand and a grin on his face -- and classmates in the computer engineering program marveled at his mastery of concepts and subject matter; at 20, he was academically a college senior.
His brother recounted one of his earliest memories of Hong saving half the candy he earned in preschool activities just for him. There was an innate conscientiousness about Hong, and in third grade he decided to become a vegetarian -- "not because of religion, but because he cannot bear to harm another living creature," his brother said.
"I am devastated about losing James, who is not only my brother, but also my best friend," he said.
At a Santa Barbara service for the six slain students, Wang's parents sat silently before a crowd of 20,000. But in a moving statement, they called their son "gentle, kind, loving, joyful, peaceful and self-controlled."
He was an avid basketball fan, friends said, and loved the L.A. Lakers. He played in high school -- "king at the bank shot," said a Facebook well-wisher -- and often enjoyed a casual game with his father, Charlie.
Wang, who was studying computer engineering, was said to be a gifted student who tempered his skills with a modest demeanor.
"David was always quiet and kept to himself," said Hannah Arionus, who graduated high school with Wang. "But when he did open up, he was so kind and so, so smart. Such a genius."
She said he was building a computer by himself "because he could," and recalled him bowling over the class when he'd analyze literary pieces.
"He was a young man of exemplary character and high academic achievement who loved basketball and was beloved by faculty, staff and students," reads a statement from Fremont Christian School, where Wang graduated in 2012.
In a television interview days after the killings, his mother, Jinshuang Liu, clutched her sobbing husband and said she doesn't know what she will do without their only child.
According to friends, she described herself as a strong mom -- a nurse who is nice to her patients. "I go to my church a few times a week. I ask God, 'Why doesn't he take me instead of my son?' I don't understand why this happened to me," she said.
It was a sentiment shared by Chen's mother, Kelly Wang, at a Leland High School vigil in San Jose, where he graduated in 2012.
"I would die 100 times, 1,000 times, if it would keep our kids from getting hurt," she said. "George was a very loving son, a loving brother. He meant everything, he is my whole life."
Chen was remembered as a young back-of-the-classroom chatterbox who loved making people laugh.
Childhood friend Thaddeus Jordan compared him to the fictional inquisitive primate Curious George, recalling his joy in messing with a malfunctioning, skyrocketing water fountain that left Chen soaked, and kept a janitor at bay from fixing the fun. "George would giggle and run around in the water, creating more of a mess, pressing the button repeatedly so the water would spew everywhere," Jordan said.
In high school, Chen was into swimming, tennis, hiking and math and was a compulsive doodler known for his goofy smile.
Iliad Rodriguez, Chen's animation teacher, said he'd often check to see what Chen was smiling about and find him immersed in an extracurricular sketch.
"I'd say, 'George, that's not the assignment,' " Rodriguez said, but Chen would be unfazed, reassuringly telling his teacher to look at the finer points of the covert drawing.
Junan Chen said that when he heard of the killings in Isla Vista, he thought his son was safe because he lived on campus.
But when a sheriff's deputy showed up at their doorstep Saturday night, "things changed forever."
"He was a good boy, a good, good boy," said family friend Joseph Lin. "The family will never, never, never fully recover."