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The Dartmouth
June 21, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Willis-Starbuck '07 murdered in off-campus shooting

While away from the Dartmouth campus for an internship, Meleia Willis-Starbuck '07 was shot and killed early Sunday morning near her apartment on College Avenue in Berkeley, Ca.

The incident occurred just before 1:46 a.m. Sunday, less than four blocks south of the University of California at Berkeley campus.

According to Berkeley police reports, a black male exited his car on Dwight Way and fired multiple shots in the vicinity of Willis-Starbuck's group of friends. The females were located outside of the Berkshire Apartments on College Avenue, near the intersection with Dwight Way. Berkeley firefighters pronounced Willis-Starbuck dead at 2:00 a.m.

The Berkeley police department could not confirm if Willis-Starbuck was the shooter's target. Public information officer Joe Okies said the issue is under investigation.

"We're in the preliminary stages of a homicide investigation, it really limits what we can put out there in terms of substantiating and confirming facts," Okies said. He noted that the department must be cautious of jeopardizing the prosecution of the case.

Berkeley police describe the suspect shooter as a black male in his twenties, 5-foot-10-inches tall and having a thin build. At the time of the murder, he was reportedly wearing a white t-shirt and blue jeans.

Willis-Starbuck was working during the summer at the Women's Daytime Drop-In Center in Berkeley. The Dartmouth Partners in Community Service program arranged the internship for Willis-Starbuck, who planned to continue working for it throughout the summer, instead of taking classes with the bulk of her class in Hanover.

Stephanie de Souza, a friend of Willis-Starbuck's from Berkeley High School, was near her car on Haste Street when she heard the gunshots fired. In an interview with The Dartmouth, de Souza discussed her version of the early morning incident.

Saturday night, de Souza met with some of Willis-Starbuck's friends when the group decided to leave for a party in nearby Oakland. De Souza decided not to attend, and instead went with a friend to a dance party in a UC Berkeley dormitory. The dance was part of the Summerbridge program, which helps "at-risk students" transition from high school to college.

De Souza said that when the party concluded, she saw Willis-Starbuck returning to her apartment -- which lies across the street from the dance party -- and asked her to join de Souza and her friend outside the party to "hang out."

Outside the dormitory, a group of UC Berkeley students, and friends of de Souza, were introduced to Willis-Starbuck and her friends.

A small argument broke out between the two groups, but ended without incident according to the police report.

"I guess some insults flew towards Meleia and her friends. They were being sarcastic, they meant it as a joke," de Souza said. "The girls took it a little too seriously, but it didn't escalate at all."

The exchange calmed and de Souza left the two groups, heading toward her car on Haste Street, only a block from the shooting.

"It was obvious everyone was walking away and going home. The argument was squashed, no hurt feelings," de Souza said.

Police reported uncertainty about any connection between the argument and the subsequent shooting.

De Souza said she believes her group of male friends is relevant to the case because of the males' physical proximity to the shooting incident, but insists that they were not involved.

Soon after the argument ended, police said a car came up Dwight Way and stopped. A man left the car and fired shots at Willis-Starbuck and her friends.

"We heard shots -- it's weird, who would be shooting off? I've never heard gunshots in my life," de Souza said, recalling how she thought the noises were firecrackers at first.

Upon hearing the shots, she returned to the dorm room of the UC Berkeley friend with whom she attended the dance party.

From the dorm room, de Souza saw police and an ambulance near the scene. She said she remembered feeling confused and scared. One half-hour later, she went down to the street and discovered that Willis-Starbuck had been murdered.

According to the police report, no one else was injured by the bullets.

De Souza also noted the uncertainty of the case and the killer's apparent absence of motive.

"For me, it was unclear who he was trying to shoot," de Souza said, "It wasn't intended for her. I couldn't possibly think of anyone who would want to kill Meleia, her friends or my guy friends."

The incident marks the second homicide this year in Berkeley -- a shock to the mostly student-populated neighborhood.

"It definitely has shaken the people that live around there," de Souza said, noting that the particular neighborhood usually remains "really safe."