The pizza ploy: murder by a scientist

In early 2002, Guyang Huang’s career was not going in the direction he expected. A year earlier, his work at the Beijing Genomics Institute earned him a spot in the author list of the high profile Nature paper publishing the draft of the human genome. Huang was author 149 of 249, somewhere in the middle of a massive list.

After moving to California, he found work at a pharma company, but it didn’t last long. In the middle of 2001, Huang was fired by his then-boss, Tanya Holzmayer, who left the company herself a few months later.

In late February 2002, the doorbell rang at Holzmayer’s home. She opened the door to find a Domino’s pizza employee on her doorstep. But neither she, nor her teenage son (who was also at home), had ordered pizza. Her moment of puzzlement would have lasted no more than a few seconds, as almost immediately, Huang appeared out of nowhere and shot Holzmayer.

In the surrounding confusion and chaos, leaving the victim, her son, the Domino’s employee and other witnesses, Huang managed to get away in his car. Holzmayer died on the scene.

A few hours later, after Domino’s had picked up the rest of the pizzas from the scene (as people had complained their food never arrived), Huang’s body was found dead near his home, with a gun next to him. His last message had been a phone call to his wife, in which he confessed to the murder of his boss and said that he was about to kill himself.

I came across this story while I was preparing for the article that came out in The Scientist last month. For this piece, I talked to a few of the people who had worked on the Human Genome Project fifteen years ago, and were co-authors on either the Nature or Science paper published in February 2001. To select people to contact, I exported the massive author lists of both papers to a spreadsheet, and spent an inadvisable* amount of time Googling all 522 people one by one to see what they’re up to these days.

For the article, I chose people that were representative of the overall set, with current jobs in academia, industry, education, and law. I found many that had similar jobs to the group I selected. There were other people who died, or people I couldn’t track down because their names were too common or they didn’t have an internet presence or they changed their name. And then there was Guyang Huang.

Huang’s story, reported in SF Gate (and probably other local newspapers that were not online in 2002) mentions that he had been depressed, and it raises some serious issues about mental health and scientific work. I deliberately left it out of the article I wrote for The Scientist. It would have been a major distraction from the story I wanted to tell, and it was not representative of the overall group of people who worked on the human genome. I was aiming for a diverse cross-section, not for outliers.

But I also couldn’t sit idly back, knowing that in the depths of the internet I had found a murder-suicide scientist pizza ploy story without sharing it, so I shared it here. Because despite being a horrible story, it reminded me that scientists are human**, for better or worse.

 

*Inadvisable not just because it was tedious, but because writing pays per article, and not per hour. Don’t be like me.

**Pizza delivery employees are also human, of course – but perhaps not for long. Domino’s just announced a trial of a pizza delivery robot.

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Eva

Eva Amsen is a writer, science communicator and blogger, interested in the overlap between science and music, art, pop culture, and daily life. Portfolio | Twitter | Contact