February 5, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 42°F


Pennsylvania Avenue residents recount scene after freshman’s death

Freshman Victoria Cheng was found dead outside an off-campus residence early Saturday afternoon.

CHENG was a freshman biology major at Ithaca College.

Residents of 380 Pennsylvania Ave. said they first noticed a body lying in the snow on the side of the house when they looked through an apartment window. Residents went outside to check on her, where they said she was fully clothed and showed no real signs of prior struggle. Residents said they could see footprints in the snow, marking where she presumably crawled before falling, and subsequently called 911.

“You never expect to see that in your yard,” one resident from 380 Pennsylvania Ave. said. “[It’s] the last thing you ever want to see.”

Deputies responded to an unresponsive female report on Pennsylvania Avenue at approximately 12:40 p.m. Saturday, according to the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Department. The Ithaca City Fire Department and Bangs Ambulance soon followed to assist.

Several local residents said police blocked off the eastern side of Pennsylvania Avenue. No vehicles could enter the eastern side of the street, and if a resident wanted to leave, they were told they could not return until the on-site investigation was completed, several local residents said. Cheng, 17, was pronounced dead at the scene.

The resident said cops investigated the area throughout the afternoon, as well as interviewing nearby residents.

“I just wanted to do everything I could to help them out,” he said. “Obviously, we were all just as surprised as anyone to find her there, and we wanted them to be able to figure it out quickly”

Residents who do not live in the closed part of Pennsylvania Avenue said, outside of occasional emergency vehicles, activity on the street was sparse. One resident even said she did not hear of Cheng’s death until it was reported online.

According to the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Department, there was no sign of foul play. The Tompkins County Sheriff’s Department is investigating the cause of death, along with New York State Police, the Ithaca Police Department and the Ithaca College Office of Public Safety.

Later Saturday afternoon, the resident said he and his roommates placed a wooden cross in the ground where they first found Cheng in her honor.

Jody Coombs, senior investigator at the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Department, said the investigation into the death of Cheng is still ongoing. Coombs said investigators have conducted extensive interviews with numerous friends of Cheng, Ithaca College students and residents on and surrounding Pennsylvania Avenue who are believed to offer information related to the investigation. Coombs said there is no timetable for the investigation’s completion.

“We’ll continue the investigation until we have satisfied our goals in making any possible determination to assist us in the cause of death,” Coombs said. “We’ll continue to do that until the leads we have identified have been resolved.”

Coombs said alcohol is believed to be a contributing factor in Cheng’s death, though investigators are not yet completely sure it played a role. Coombs said an autopsy was completed at Lourdes Hospital in Binghamton, N.Y., but there is no timetable for the release of results.

Cheng, a biology major, was from Spencer, N.Y., and was a 2010 graduate of Ithaca High School. Her father, Joseph Cheng, is an associate professor of finance and international business at the college, and her brother, Joshua Cheng, is a sophomore physics-engineering major in the School of Humanities and Sciences. Her mother, Sarah Cheng, is a graduate of the college.

On Friday, Cornell University sophomore George Desdunes was found nonresponsive in his fraternity house at approximately 7:00 a.m. Friday morning, according at an Ithaca Police Department press release. Desdunes was transported to Cayuga Medical Center, where he later died.

Coombs said the two deaths are unrelated and both appear to be accidental.

Hundreds of students, local residents, faculty and staff packed inside Muller Chapel Sunday to remember Cheng, while other stood in an outside room to hear friends tearfully recall their favorite moments with the freshman.

After a few minutes of silent remembrance at Muller Chapel, Father Carsten Martensen and LeBron Rankins, a psychologist at the college, encouraged attendees to share stories of experiences they shared with Cheng.

“Whether you knew her or not, she has had an impact on all of our lives,” Martensen said. “And our lives are different because of her.”

Ithaca community members share stories in memory of Victoria Cheng Sunday afternoon in Muller Chapel.
Ithaca community members share stories in memory of Victoria Cheng Sunday afternoon in Muller Chapel.

Friends offered their favorite memories with Cheng, with some overcoming tears to recall Cheng’s smile, intellect, sense of humor and bright personality.

Freshman Marcus Henry, an exploratory major, was the first of dozens to speak up. Henry said he met Cheng at summer orientation, and she later became one of his best friends. Henry remembered times playing tennis with Cheng, a member of the college’s women’s tennis team, at least two or three times a week during her offseason, but one instance stood out.

“There was this one time where she really wanted to play, but it was around the time where it starts to get dark earlier in the day,” he said. “It was already dark, so we couldn’t really play. We couldn’t see the ball, but we kept hitting it to each other.”

Isaac Derfel, a sophomore television-radio major, said he met Cheng as a senior at Ithaca High School. Cheng was best friends with the girl he wanted to date, and he remembered initially being terrified of Cheng despite her small frame. Derfel said the two eventually became great friends, and when he graduated from high school a year ahead of his girlfriend, he had a special request for Cheng — one that he’ll always be thankful for.

“When I came up the hill after I graduated, she was my eyes and ears for the girl I had fallen in love with to take care of her while I was here and I couldn’t be down at the high school,” he said. “Now that Victoria’s gone, I’ll pick up the slack.”

Pastor Paul Epp of the First Ithaca Chinese Christian Church, Cheng’s family church, said he had the opportunity to get to know Cheng once he moved to the area two and a half years ago. Epp described her as friendly, polite and outgoing.

Epp said he and Cheng spent the most time together when she was training as an instrumentalist for the congregation. He said the two would practice the guitar before they played in front of a youth group of 10 or 15 people.

“We would meet probably an hour ahead of time, and we’d practice signing together,” he said. “She always was very cooperative and had the desire to become a better guitar player.”

Several counselors, chaplains and Mental Health Response Team volunteers also attended the gathering. Deborah Harper, director of the Office of Counseling and Wellness, said she encouraged students to, if necessary, schedule individual counseling appointments. She said the Counseling Center offers emergency hours every afternoon.

Harper also said students should not be afraid to take advantage of “Living With Grief,” a weekly, drop-in support group facilitated by Rankins, that meets at 5:15 p.m. every Thursday in the Health Promotion Resource Room.

A memorial service for Cheng will be held this week, though the date and time has yet to be determined.

Anyone with information is encouraged to call the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Department at 607-272-2444.