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UC Merced student dies at hospital

MERCED — An 18-year-old UC Merced freshman died at a hospital Saturday after he was found with a head wound lying on the ground near a dormitory earlier in the day, authorities said.

This is the first death reported on the University of California at Merced campus since the school opened in September 2005.

School officials and the Merced County Sheriff would not release the student's name or hometown, but said he was from Southern California. They were still trying to notify the family Saturday night.

Sheriff-Coroner Mark Pazin said the cause of death had not been determined, but an autopsy will be conducted Monday or Tuesday.

"In any unattended death, it is classified as suspicious by nature since there wasn't anyone around," Pazin said.

The student's friends last saw him walking in the campus housing area, also known as the Valley Terraces, late Friday night, said Patti Waid Istas, a university spokeswoman.

Two students, who live off campus, were walking along Scholars Lane about 9:50 a.m. Saturday when they spotted the student's body on the ground on the south side of the Tulare Hall dorm, Waid Istas said. It was next to the building, which sits about 200 yards from the campus's main entrance on Lake Road.

UC Merced police responded to the scene and discovered the student did not have a pulse. Pazin said the student had suffered trauma to the right side of the head. He was taken to Mercy Medical Center in Merced, where he was pronounced dead a short time later.

"This is a continuing investigation, but as of right now, we have not established that any foul play was involved," UC Merced Police Chief Rita Spaur said Saturday evening.

On Saturday afternoon, yellow caution tape surrounded the spot where the student was found. Three student security officers were stationed on the sidewalk in front of Tulare Hall; two UC police cars were parked on the street.

University police will investigate

None of the students interviewed Saturday was aware of the death.

"Last year, nothing like this happened, besides party busting," said student John Renteria.

Spaur said the Sheriff's Department will handle the coroner's investigation, but her department will conduct all other investigations.

This is the first time the UC Merced Police Department has investigated a death since it was established just before the school opened.

The department has eight police officers and seven non-sworn employees.

Spaur said campus police investigations have been limited mostly to thefts of computer equipment and a few cases of public intoxication.

Spaur said she and the other officers in her department have investigated many deaths in their careers and the department is more than capable in handling the lead role.

Merced is the UC's 10th campus. It opened with 900 students and now has about 1,300.

About 370 live on campus. Spaur said typically fewer than 300, including students and staff, will be on campus during the weekend.

She said at least one officer is on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"It's important that folks know that this is a safe campus," Spaur said.

UC Merced Chancellor Sung-Mo "Steve" Kang said Saturday afternoon the campus was secure and school officials were taking every possible measure to determine what happened.

"I wish to express my sincere condolences to the student's family and friends," Kang said. "The entire campus community mourns this tragedy with you."

Merced Sun-Star reporters Leslie Albrecht and Victor Patton contributed to this report.

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