NEW YORK — A disgraced dean of St. John’s University accused of using students as personal servants was found hanging in her apartment Tuesday, dead of an apparent suicide one day after she testified in her own defense at her criminal trial, a law enforcement official said.
Cecilia Chang’s body was discovered hanging from a folding ladder that leads to her attic in her Queens home Tuesday morning, said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly because Chang’s family had not been notified and thus spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity.
Chang, 59, was the former dean of the Institute of Asian Studies and was charged in 2010 with stealing $1 million from the school and with forced labor. Federal authorities said she forced students to run personal errands for her and do mundane tasks like making meals at a veteran administrator’s home or answering her personal emails or else they would be kicked out of school.
Her federal trial started recently. On Monday, Chang gave rambling, bizarre testimony where she admitted lying to an FBI agent, expensing personal items and using her students. But she denied stealing from the school.
“I laid out so much money over the years,” she said on the stand. “I raised $20 million for St. John’s.”
A day later, U.S. District Court Judge Sterling Johnson declared a mistrial in the case. Johnson called her death “a Shakespearean tragedy” and suggested her testimony Monday was a purposeful confession.
“That could be one of the reasons she wanted to testify,” Johnson told the prosecutors and Chang’s lawyers, according to the Daily News of New York and New York Post. “Sayonara. Get it off her chest. We never know how an individual handles the pressure. She admitted everything on the stand.”
Chang’s attorneys Joel Cohen and Alan Abramson, who had objected to Chang’s decision to testify in her own defense, said she dedicated 30 years of her life to the university.
“She was a prolific fundraiser and tireless advocate for her beloved Asian Studies program at the university,” they wrote. “Her death today is a sad ending to a complex human drama.”
The medical examiner’s office will determine a cause of death.