BLACKSBURG, Va. (WDBJ7) -- Virginia Tech Police have arrested a university freshman after police say they found multiple rifles that were being changed into assault rifles in his possession, which is illegal based on his Student VISA status.
According to arrest warrants obtained by WDBJ7, Yunsong Zhao, 19, was arrested and charged with possessing an assault rifle firearm while not being a lawfully admitted U.S. citizen, violating Virginia Code 18.2-308.2:01 .
The crime is a Class Six felony under Virginia law.
Zhao has family that lives in China according to court documents, and he’d only been in Blacksburg for six months.
Police searched his dorm at Cochrane Hall on January 29, but didn’t take anything according to the search warrant.
Officers also went through his car, a 2011 Ford Crown Victoria Sedan looking for rifle magazines that hold more than 20 rounds or other weapons accessories that would change the status of a rifle to an assault rifle.
That followed, what Virginia Tech is calling, a several-week long investigation.
Virginia Tech Police said they were alerted to Zhao after he purchased an AR-15 rifle on January 25 and 30 round PMAG (5.56 m0del) rifle magazine on January 22.
On their own those items are not illegal, but Virginia Code does not allow people with Student Visas to own assault firearms, or, “any semi-automatic center-fire rifle or pistol that expels single or multiple projectiles by action of an explosion of a combustible material and is equipped at the time of the offense with a magazine which will hold more than 20 rounds of ammunition or designed by the manufacturer to accommodate a silencer or equipped with a folding stock,” according to the Code definition.
After checking out his Bushmaster XM-15 from the student gun locker at the Public Safety Building on January 26, police asked Blacksburg detectives to follow Zhao to the Jefferson National Forest shooting range.
There, a Detective says, he watched Zhao fire a .223 caliber weapon with a 30 round magazine.
In court records police say Zhao tried to buy 5,000 rounds of ammunition, was researching bullet proof vests, and bought a former police car and outfitted it with special bumpers, according to the complainant.
Court records indicated Zhao has no criminal history, but it does list a reckless driving by speeding pending charge in Botetourt General District Court.
Zhao is currently being held at the Montgomery County Jail. He is scheduled to appear in court for a preliminary hearing March 1. Tuesday he was assigned Jason Wolfrey as council.
Despite the arrest, students were in shock Tuesday night when they heard what Zhao was arrested for.
Alvaro Barros is a Virginia Tech Freshman from Brazil who knows Zhao from a Summer Academy.
He said of Zhao, “He seemed like a normal guy, you know what I mean? Just someone trying to make friends and trying to blend in like everyone else.”
He was eating dinner with other Summer Academy students Tuesday night when he learned it was Zhao who had been arrested.
Barros said of that news, “I was just shocked because he doesn't seem like the guy that would do it, not at all. So coming from a different country, you really see how people can be different inside than they are outside.”
That was a common response from students Tuesday night.
Max Weinberg, a Freshman from Ft. Washington, PA, said, “I was surprised and kind of scared at the same time that somebody would try and do something like that.”
Fellow Freshman Karl Bandlow from Doylestown, PA, added, “Thank God that the police were able to find him and everything. As a personal reaction, it was just kind of overwhelming just thinking back to what happened several years ago and just that that could actually be another reality.”
A Virginia Tech spokesperson said there was likely added fear amongst students after Police posted on Facebook yesterday about rumors of someone stockpiling weapons.
There was no evidence supporting the rumor. And it's important to know that post was referencing a different case entirely from Zhao's arrest.
Virginia Tech Police have issued the following statement regarding the arrest of Zhao:
On Tuesday, Virginia Tech received many calls from concerned community members following media reports of an arrest made Monday by Virginia Tech Police involving a student on a weapons charge.
The arrest followed an investigation that spanned several weeks, and the suspect is now in custody.
At no time during this investigation did police believe there was any threat to our community, nor is there one now.
Also on Monday, social media posts were made concerning a rumor that an individual was stockpiling weapons on or near campus. The arrest Monday was not related to the rumor nor have these rumors been substantiated in any way.
On Monday, Virginia Tech Police Chief Kevin Foust posted the following message — provided below — on a parent’s group Facebook page as well as the VT Police web page. It is shared below for the wider Virginia Tech community.
As always, the safety of the Virginia Tech community is the top priority of the university and its police department. Police remain vigilant at all times and work around the clock to keep our campus safe. They deeply appreciate reports or concerns of campus safety and investigate each and every one. At any moment, if there is a threat to campus, VT Alerts will be used to notify the community.
Right now, there is no threat to our community. And because there was no threat a VT Alert was not sent Monday.
Facebook post from Chief Kevin Foust - Originally posted on Jan. 29
Earlier today, VTPD received information about a rumor that “someone on campus” had been “stockpiling weapons” and the students “should avoid large lecture classes”. Understandably, others hearing this were deeply concerned, too. VTPD immediately investigated but have found no evidence this rumor is accurate. However, we will continue to be vigilant for our community.
We always encourage members of our community to contact us anytime there is a concern about safety, security and/or suspected violation of the law on campus. All of us at Virginia Tech are fully committed to keeping our campus and satellite facilities as safe and secure as possible. Rest assured that if VTPD possesses any information indicating an impending or immediate threat to campus, we will take the necessary steps to alert our community.
Today, following a lengthy investigation, VTPD served an arrest warrant on a student for a firearms violation. Hence, we obtained an arrest warrant for that student and took him into custody earlier today without incident. It is quite possible this case sparked the rumor from earlier today.
As always, we greatly appreciate the vigilance of not only our campus community but of all of Hokie nation. We work very closely with all departments across campus as well as our law enforcement colleagues in Blacksburg, Christiansburg, Montgomery County as well as the state and federal authorities. I want to personally thank each and every one of you in assisting us here in our efforts to keep all Hokies safe.