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Ex-St. John's dean apparently killed self

An attorney for Dr. Cecilia Chang, a former

An attorney for Dr. Cecilia Chang, a former dean at St. John's University on trial for allegedly forcing scholarship students to act as her personal servants, said she was found dead overnight in an apparent suicide. (Sept. 15, 2010) Credit: Uli Seit

The former St. John's University dean accused of embezzling $1 million and using foreign students as servants was found dead, apparently a suicide, Tuesday, the day after sparring with the judge during combative testimony in her own defense in federal court in Brooklyn.

Cecilia Chang, 59, a globe-trotting fundraiser who headed the Queens school's Asian Studies Program, was discovered at 7:38 a.m. by police at her Jamaica Estates home after her son was unable to reach her and alerted authorities. U.S. District Judge Sterling Johnson, who presided over her trial, said he was told she hanged herself.

Johnson called the death of Chang, a former St. John's student who raised an estimated $20 million for the school, a "Shakespearean tragedy." He speculated that her Monday testimony, in which she admitted a string of phony expense claims but told jurors she was trying to recoup money she was owed for her fundraising, was a planned swan song.

"That could be one of the reasons she wanted to testify," the judge said. "Sayonara. She wanted to get it off her chest . . . We never know how an individual handles pressure."

Jurors, who came to court expecting to hear closing arguments, said they were shocked by the news of her death -- but not completely surprised after seeing her frustration on the witness stand when the judge limited her answers and her efforts to justify her actions. Most jurors said they were ready to convict her, and she probably knew that.

"In retrospect, I would say this was not an emotionally healthy person," said Sam Sills, of Brooklyn. "But this was like a blow to the stomach."

"I could see she was stressed, enormously stressed," said Joan Brophy of Staten Island. "But she was just digging herself a deeper hole."

Chang was facing a state trial once the federal prosecution ended. In addition to evidence that she had St. John's reimburse items such as her son's law school tuition, foreign students testified that they were required to perform menial personal tasks at her home in return for work-study scholarships she controlled.

Testimony and court filings indicated that Chang was a frequent gambler and a heavy drinker. A Monday story in the New York Daily News reported that Chang had been a suspect in the 1990 killing of her first husband -- a report that her lawyers said weighed on her.

A St. John's spokesman, in a statement, said the school was "saddened" by Chang's death. But one of her attorneys said she felt deserted by the school she worked at for 30 years and raised millions for to help.

"Everyone at St. John's lived high off of her," defense attorney Stephen Mahler of Kew Gardens said, "but she was the only one sitting in the defendant's chair."

With William Murphy

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