NEW YORK — A former dean of St. John’s University who had been accused of stealing more than $1 million from the school was found dead in her home Tuesday morning from an apparent suicide, a person with knowledge of the matter said.
The dean, Cecilia Chang, was found inside her home in Queens, N.Y., said the person, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the episode. It was unclear how Chang died or who found her.
Chang’s death comes in the midst of her trial, in which in addition to being accused of stealing money from St. John’s, she was also accused of using students as her personal servants.
At the federal courthouse in Brooklyn on Tuesday morning, a prosecutor told the judge presiding over Chang’s trial that a body had been found inside her home. But the judge, Sterling Johnson Jr., said he would keep the jury in place until he received official confirmation that Chang was dead.
But Johnson did speak briefly of Chang’s apparent suicide, saying: ‘‘That could be one of the reasons that she wanted to testify. Sayonara. Get it off her chest. We never know how an individual handles the pressure. She admitted everything on the stand.’’
Chang’s body was apparently discovered by the police after her son had been unable to reach his mother by telephone, officials said.
On Monday, Chang had taken the stand in her own defense in an effort to rebut the prosecution’s presentation that depicted her as a thief who was fueled by greed.
Chang acknowledged that she had used school money to pay for her son’s graduate school and had made students hand-wash her underwear.
Chang, who led the Institute of Asian Studies at St. John’s and served as its vice president for international relations, was accused of using her position to recruit scholarship students from overseas, promising them a free education, and then forcing them to clean her house and shuttle cases of liquor to her room at the Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut.
She had faced up to 20 years in prison on the most serious charge against her, forced labor.
Prosecutors presented considerable evidence against Chang. Documents and e-mails from the university showed hundreds of thousands of dollars in personal items, including repairs for her Mercedes-Benz, that had been charged to a St. John’s credit card. And former students testified about the menial labor they performed for her and the threats of lost scholarships if they balked.