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British scientist visiting Atlanta suburb killed by stray bullet while lying in bed

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A British astrophysicist visiting his girlfriend just outside Atlanta was killed by a stray bullet on Jan. 16 that struck him while he was lying in bed. Matthew Willson, 31, died of a single gunshot wound to the head after being transported to a hospital, local law enforcement said Thursday.

Willson, who was from Chertsey, a London suburb, was next to his girlfriend when he was shot in Brookhaven, Ga., around 2 a.m. The couple heard a heavy round of gunshots when she suggested calling the police, she told British media, which reported they had met when he worked as a researcher at Georgia State University.

"His last words were, 'Sure, I'm sure they are just messing around,' " said his partner, Katherine Shepard, who saw him slumping over in the dark, only to realize he had been hit. She recalled trying to stop the bleeding from his head with a towel, urging him to "stay with me" as his eyes closed and he struggled to breathe.

The bullet was likely to have been fired from an area outside the apartment complex. The shooting appeared to be a "random act involving individuals participating in the reckless discharge of" one or more firearms, Brookhaven police said in a statement.

"This is a senseless act. This is a completely innocent victim," Sgt. Jake Kissel told WSB-TV, adding that Willson had just arrived in the United States.

The Briton's killing made headlines in Britain, which has one of the lowest gun homicide rates in the world and some of the strictest firearms laws, including comprehensive background checks. By contrast, 2020 was the deadliest gun violence year for the United States in decades, with nearly 20,000 Americans killed, according to data from the Gun Violence Archive.

Willson's family could not immediately be reached for comment. But a sister of the astrophysicist told local media that someone was "just shooting a gun for fun. And they don't even know that they've taken such a beautiful person from us."

"There is no logic to it," she told British media. "We want justice for Matthew."

The British Foreign Office said it was in contact with U.S. authorities and was "supporting the family of a British man following his death in the USA."

In a tribute to Willson, Britain's University of Exeter said its former PhD student was "a much-loved member of our astrophysics team."

"We have been informed about his tragic death in the U.S. and our hearts go out to his family, friends and colleagues," it said in a statement.

The death also shocked Brookhaven, a city of some 55,000. In 2017, a home security organization named it the tenth-safest city in Georgia and the safest in populous DeKalb County — a ranking based on metrics including FBI reports, crime trends, the number of law enforcement officials and unemployment levels. The police have urged witnesses to come forward with any information related to the shooting.

Ellen Francis contributed to this report.

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