Just days after Ish and Ritu Dhawan sent their 18-year-old son, Akul, back to college last month, they received a worrying call. Akul’s friend didn’t know where he was; he’d been missing since going to a party the night before.
The Bay Area-based family called the campus police at his school, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, expecting to get more details, they said. They were transferred to the county coroner.
“He told me he’s deceased. I could not believe it,” Ish Dhawan told NBC News through tears. “Nobody bothered to tell us.”
Akul, a freshman engineering student, died in subzero temperatures around 500 feet from his last known location, and his parents say what they’ve heard from authorities since has yielded more questions than answers. The Dhawans maintain that police were negligent in their search for Akul and in their communication with the family.?
With their son gone, they say they want answers.
“I believe this is just a bad dream, I believe he is going to come back,” Ish said. “It is so unimaginable that a kid can die in this day and age right on the university campus.”
According to a press release from the university police department, Akul’s friend reported him missing at 1:23 a.m. on Jan. 20 after he left from a classmate’s dorm and couldn’t be reached by phone. An officer searched the area by driving “at a walking pace” along several roads and sidewalks between his last known location and his residence hall, asking passersby if they saw anyone. The release said the officer also called local hospitals and checked if Akul’s student ID was used at any campus buildings. None of the officers’ actions yielded results.
Akul’s body was found 10 hours later on the concrete back steps of a university building, not by police, but by a university employee, police said. The Champaign County Coroner said in its release that the final cause of death is pending toxicology results, but that Akul’s body showed signs of hypothermia.
“If somebody’s reported missing, you go and you look,” Ish Dhawan said. “You mobilize people. When the temperature is minus Fahrenheit, every minute is precious.”?
Ish and Ritu said they had met with several university officials as well as a detective with the campus police. None provided adequate answers, they said, and none have contacted them with updates since.?
The University of Illinois and campus police did not respond to specific questions from NBC News, including about if there was a foot search and why they didn’t call the family.
“The safety of all of our students and community members is of the highest priority,” a police spokesperson told NBC News, saying the department is “heartbroken” for the family.?
The parents said state police should be involved, but the Illinois State Police told NBC News that they did respond and provided support services at the request of University of Illinois police. They directed follow ups to the university police, who didn’t respond to additional questions.
‘Full of energy, dreams and ambitions’?
Akul died a few days after returning to school from winter break, and his parents say they’re clinging to the last memories they have of him. A natural engineer since childhood, he was a lifelong lover of Lego. Back home for the holidays, he built a 5,000-piece Marvel Lego tower in one night.?
“We still have it. We’re always going to keep that,” his father said. “It was his last project.”
They remember their son as someone who was excited about life from the start. After spending most of his high school years remote-learning during Covid, he was thrilled with his new college life and friends when he started school in the fall, they said. In January, he couldn’t wait to return.
“I was FaceTiming him while he was filling his class registration, just a few days back,” Ritu said. “He was so excited.”?
Having lived most of his life in the Bay Area, Akul wasn’t used to the cold, his parents said, so, while he was home, they shopped for all the winter clothes he could possibly need. The night he died, it was minus 1 degrees Fahrenheit; Ish Dhawan said he learned later that Akul had left his jacket at a friend’s dorm since the party was just across the street and there wasn’t a coat check.
“He just turned 18 in September,” Ish said. “He was a very young, very naive 18-year-old kid.”?
Two weeks later, the Dhawans are waiting for Akul’s stuff, much of it brand new for the semester, to come back in boxes. Still baffled by the details of that night, they’re calling for an independent investigation into what happened.
“I don’t believe anything the police are saying,” Ish said.?
As they look back on the years they spent with Akul, they say they’ll never stop missing him.
“He was just a happy-go-lucky kid,” Ish said. “A typical kid with all the desires and ambitions.”
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