Students and faculty who knew Army Lt. Richard Collins III, the slain Bowie State University student, mourned him with moments of silence and kind words during what would have been his commencement ceremony on Tuesday.
They were also grappling with how exactly to process Collins' sudden, unprovoked stabbing death at the hands of a white man who belonged to a Facebook group that glorified white supremacy. Was it a hate crime? Was it a random attack? Should they wait for the details?
“It could be a hate crime,” said William Sands, who was in Collins' class at the historically black college and knew him personally. “But I just don't know the whole story.”
Around 650 Bowie State University students rose with resounding cheers as Collins’ family walked across the stage to collect his posthumous degree in business administration during Tuesday's ceremony — held at the University of Maryland, less than a mile from where Collins was fatally stabbed. Collins had already picked up his cap and gown in preparation for the festivities.
University of Maryland police charged a 22-year-old white University of Maryland student, Sean Christopher Urbanski, with first- and second-degree murder and first-degree assault. He is being held on a no-bond status and prosecutors called him a “threat to the community.”
Authorities are evaluating the incident as a possible hate crime because Urbanski belonged to in a Facebook group called “Alt Reich: Nation,” police said Sunday. “When I looked at the information that’s contained on that website, suffice to say that it’s despicable,” University Police Chief David B. Mitchell said, adding that it showed “extreme bias against women, Latinos, members of the Jewish faith, and especially African-Americans.”
However, Prince George's County State's Attorney, Angela Alsobrooks, said that Urbanski’s motive remained unclear.
“We do not have enough evidence to say conclusively whether this is a hate crime,” she said at a press conference Monday. “What we can say is that we will leave no stone unturned.” She added that authorities “need something probably more than just a Facebook posting” to determine that the killing was a hate crime.
Collins was waiting at a bus stop with two of his friends when a screaming Urbanski approached them early Saturday morning, authorities said.
Urbanski appeared to be intoxicated and told Collins, “ Step left, step left if you know what’s best for you,” according to police. When a puzzled Collins said no, Urbanski stabbed him in the chest and fled, according to police. He was later arrested at a bus stop 50 feet away from the attack. Collins died at a hospital later that night.
On Tuesday, the bus stop was a makeshift memorial for Collins, filled with flowers and candles.
Friends say that even though Collins went to Bowie, he could always be found on the UMD campus. “It’s where most of his friends were,” said Sands, who knew Collins since freshman year. “It was a different environment, it was diverse, bigger. That was the crowd he was with.”
Which is why some are shocked at the possibility that Collins could be the victim of a hate crime on a campus which he loved and where he had many friends.
Trey Dickey, whose friend dated Collins, said he had a “lot of faith in white America.”
“That’s who he liked to be around, that’s who he hung out with. That was his crowd,” she said, adding that at Bowie, the only people of color Collins usually hung out with were people in his ROTC program.
“He loved the UMD atmosphere,” she said. “And at Bowie — an HBCU — he wasn't really into this type of atmosphere.”
Collins' friends weren't ready to say the incident was a hate crime.
“Unfortunately I think it can go both ways” as a hate crime or an unprovoked, random attack, said Emajhe Graves. “I pray it's not a hate crime, but at the same time, from the receipts it looks like it's a hate crime but we wish it didn't really go that way.”
Other students said they were willing to wait for more information before making a determination.
“I really can't say why it happened because I don't know all the details,” Duane Short, who knew Collins for three years, told BuzzFeed News. “But I just think he didn't deserved it and it was unprovoked. That should have never happened to him. I think it was him being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Still, while most Bowie State University students celebrated, it was a day of with mixed emotions for many of Collins’ friends and peers in the College of Business.
“He’s supposed to be here with us,” Short said. “He would probably be standing right here with us right now,” he said, gesturing to the empty space next to him.
Short said that he and Collins had just taken two finals together. “I had just seen him pick up his cap and gown,” he said.
Collins was recently commissioned as a second lieutenant in the US Army's intelligence division and wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father, a military veteran.
Friends said he was passionate about serving in the Army.
“He was doing ROTC since freshman year and was very grounded in that,” Sands said. “He wanted to be in the armed services. And he was about to accomplish that, until this happened.”
At Tuesday’s commencement, Bowie State University President Mickey L. Burnim called for a moment of silence, “as we remember the life of our fallen bulldog, Army Lt. Richard Collins III.”
Burnim said that as they celebrated the achievements of 650 students, “we do so with great sadness because one of our brightest, in the prime of his life, has fallen victim to an unprovoked assault.”
Before conferring the graduates with their degrees, Burnim called on Collins’ family to receive his posthumous degree in business administration. As his family walked on stage — escorted by ROTC cadets — students broke into cheers and applause and gave them a standing ovation.
Those who knew him well described Collins as a nice, fun, and positive guy who was always ready to help out friends.
“He was such a good person,” Dickey said. “When I first met him, he drove me two hours all the way to the closest Sprint store so that I could buy a new phone. When I was stranded on campus at nights he would give me a ride home. And he loved people. It’s just devastating what happened.”