A former chemistry student is facing multiple felony charges after being caught on camera using a vial and syringe to insert an unknown substance through his neighbor’s condominium door in Tampa, Fla.
Xuming Li, who was enrolled in a Ph.D. program at the University of South Florida, had been making noise complaints about the apartment of Umar Abdullah, for more than a year, Mr. Abdullah said in a phone interview on Sunday. The university said in a statement that Mr. Li was no longer enrolled and that his last term was this summer.
The complaints went on for months, but it wasn’t until May that a chemical smell was noticed in Mr. Abdullah’s apartment, he said. The mystery odor, which caused Mr. Abdullah’s family to experience breathing difficulties and burning eyes, eventually led Mr. Abdullah to place a concealed camera — which recorded Mr. Li crouching outside the door on June 27.
Mr. Li was arrested that day and pleaded not guilty to charges that included possession of a controlled substance, battery and aggravated stalking, court records from Hillsborough County show. He was released on bond on June 29 and was expected to appear in court in December. “All the facts will come out in due time,” his lawyer, Adam Leo Bantner, said in a brief telephone interview.
Though Mr. Abdullah and his wife had a child shortly after moving into their third-floor apartment, he said that Mr. Li’s complaints were not about a baby crying but rather about everyday sounds — a vacuum running, a toilet seat closing, a dresser drawer opening. Mr. Abdullah said that he and his wife wore house slippers and bought several rugs to muffle noises, but that their efforts were futile and no amount of apologies seemed to placate their neighbor, who filed a complaint with their homeowner association.
The association reminded Mr. Li that living in a multifamily unit meant that residents should expect to hear neighbors moving around their homes, and encouraged him to be understanding that his neighbors had a very young child, according to an association email shared by Mr. Abdullah.
The neighborly dispute took a turn in May, after nearly a year of noise complaints. A friend who had arrived to collect a package while the family was out of town reported that a strong odor was making it difficult to breathe and had caused burning in her eyes, Mr. Abdullah said.
The chemical smell returned nearly every week afterward, making it hard to breathe and causing irritation that resembled “poking your eye with some needle,” Mr. Abdullah said.
Each time the chemical smell returned, the family rushed to open windows and ventilate their home. Mr. Abdullah said the odor caused them excruciating headaches and unusual hair loss and eventually began to trigger coughing fits and vomiting in their infant daughter, who was only months old.
The family initially thought their appliances were at fault. A repairman found no problems with their air conditioning unit but also reported discomfort from a chemical odor, Mr. Abdullah said. A plumber who arrived to check out the water heater later wrote in a report that he felt “lightheaded and nausea just from being in the unit.” A fire department crew called in a hazmat team on another occasion after noticing that “something near the front door” was making their eyes become watery, according to an incident report provided by Mr. Abdullah.
The source of the smell remained a mystery until Mr. Abdullah hid the security camera in a plant outside his front door, where the odor was strongest. In the June 27 recording, a man who appeared to be Mr. Li approaches Mr. Abdullah’s door with a vial and syringe in hand before he is interrupted by a phone call. Minutes later, he returns and crouches directly in front of the door, where he appears to inject the contents of the syringe through a small gap in the corner.
Mr. Abdullah and his family have remained in their apartment, while they await final test results to identify what could have sickened them. Doctors have advised them to watch for long-term side effects, Mr. Abdullah said, though he added that it was difficult to know what effects the unknown substance could have in his now 1-year-old daughter.