April 19, 2007
Officials Knew Troubled State of Killer in ’05
By SHAILA DEWAN and MARC SANTORA
BLACKSBURG, Va., April 18 — Campus authorities were aware 17 months ago of the troubled mental state of the student who shot and killed 32 people at Virginia Tech on Monday, an imbalance graphically on display in vengeful videos and a manifesto he mailed to NBC News in the time between the two sets of shootings.
“You have vandalized my heart, raped my soul and torched my conscience,” the gunman, Cho Seung-Hui, said in one video mailed shortly before the shooting at a classroom and his suicide. “Thanks to you, I die like Jesus Christ to inspire generations of the weak and the defenseless people.”
NBC, which received the package on Wednesday and quickly turned it over to the authorities, broadcast video excerpts on “The NBC Nightly News.”
The hostility in the videos was foreshadowed in 2005, when Mr. Cho’s sullen and aggressive behavior culminated in an unsuccessful effort by the campus police to have him involuntarily committed to a mental institution in December.
For all the interventions by the police and faculty members, Mr. Cho was allowed to remain on campus and live with other students. There is no evidence that the police monitored him and no indication that the authorities or fellow students were aware of any incident that pushed him to his rampage.
Despite Mr. Cho’s time in the mental health system, when an English professor was disturbed by his writings last fall and contacted the associate dean of students, the dean told the professor that there was no record of any problems and that nothing could be done, said the instructor, Lisa Norris.
The quest to have him committed, documented in court papers, was made after a female student complained of unwelcome telephone calls and in-person communication from Mr. Cho on Nov. 27, 2005. The woman declined to press charges, and the campus police referred the case to the disciplinary system of the university, Chief Wendell Flinchum said.
Mr. Cho’s disciplinary record was not released because of privacy laws. The associate vice president for student affairs, Edward F. D. Spencer, said it would not be unusual if no disciplinary action had been taken in such a case. On Dec. 12, a second woman asked the police to put a stop to Mr. Cho’s instant messages to her. She, too, declined to press charges.
The police said Mr. Cho did not threaten the women, who described the efforts at contact as “annoying.” But later on the day of the second complaint, an unidentified acquaintance of Mr. Cho notified the police that he might be suicidal.
Mr. Cho went voluntarily to the Police Department, which referred him to a mental health agency off campus, Chief Flinchum said. A counselor recommended involuntary commitment, and a judge signed an order saying that he “presents an imminent danger to self or others” and sent him to Carilion St. Albans Psychiatric Hospital in Radford for an evaluation.
“Affect is flat and mood is depressed,” a doctor there wrote. “He denies suicidal ideations. He does not acknowledge symptoms of a thought disorder. His insight and judgment are sound.”
The doctor determined that Mr. Cho was mentally ill, but not an imminent danger, and the judge declined to commit him, instead ordering outpatient treatment.
Officials said they did not know whether Mr. Cho had received subsequent counseling.
In Virginia, the examining doctor or psychologist has to convince a local magistrate that the person “as a result of mental illness is in imminent danger of harming himself or others, or is substantially unable to care for himself,” said Richard J. Bonnie, director of the Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy at the University of Virginia.
Mr. Bonnie said that it was not a simple matter to force people into treatment against their will and that lawyers, patients’ advocates and psychiatrists had debated the question for decades.
The hospitalization occurred after a trouble-filled semester for Mr. Cho. In October 2005, a professor of creative writing, the poet Nikki Giovanni, refused to let him stay in her class because his writing was “intimidating” and he frightened other students.
Classmates reported that Mr. Cho was taking photographs of women under the desks. Lucinda H. Roy, chairwoman of the English department at the time, tried to intervene, but she, too, was disturbed by his response. Professor Roy said the reaction was “very arrogant” with an “underlying tone of anger.”
Much about what Mr. Cho did after leaving the hospital remains uncertain. Professor Roy said that she had no contact with him after that date and that she believed he had graduated.
Last August, Mr. Cho’s parents helped move him to a dormitory room he shared with Joe Aust, 19, for his senior year.
His writings grew increasingly unhinged. He submitted two plays to Prof. Edward C. Falco’s class that had so much profanity and violent imagery that the other students refused to read and analyze his work. Professor Falco said he was so concerned that he spoke with several faculty members who had taught Mr. Cho.
Ms. Norris, who taught Mr. Cho in a 10-student creative writing workshop last fall, was disturbed enough by his writings that she contacted the associate dean of students, Mary Ann Lewis. Ms. Norris said the faculty was instructed to report problem students to Ms. Lewis.
“You go to her to find out if there are any other complaints about a student,” Ms. Norris said, adding that Ms. Lewis had said she had no record of any problem with Mr. Cho despite his long and troubled history at the university.
“I do not know why she would not have that information,” she said. “I just know that she did not have it.”
Ms. Lewis, associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, said Wednesday night that she would not comment on Ms. Norris’s statement.
Mr. Cho was allowed to remain in the seminar but was placed off to the side, where, Ms. Norris said, he did not speak. She did not share his writings with the class. As the weeks passed, she added, she noticed a slight change in his writing. Instead of focusing on children, as he had in the past, his last story was about adults.
And then he stopped going to class.
“If I had known anything else I could have done, by god, I would have done it,” Ms. Norris said.
Carolyn D. Rude, chairwoman of the English department, said faculty members were pro-active, even attending seminars on helping students in distress, a skill particularly applicable in an English department, where creative writing teachers had intimate glimpses into their students’ troubles and temperaments.
But, Professor Rude said, there was only so much that faculty members, administrators and even the campus police could do if no crime had been committed.
“There were reports, and urgent ones, more than once,” she said. “All we can do is notice and report. We don’t have the powers of the counselors or the justice system. But we do have the responsibility to let students do their coursework.”
Investigators have not determined Mr. Cho’s motive or whether he had a connection to any victims, said Col. W. Steven Flaherty, superintendent of the state police.
The package mailed to NBC, a composite portrait of Mr. Cho as a pistol-wielding moralist who decried his audience’s hedonistic taste for vodka and cognac, did not immediately seem to offer concrete clues. It brimmed with recriminations and a sense of persecution, and referred to the killers at Columbine High School in Colorado as martyrs.
“You had a hundred billion chances and ways to avoid today, but you decided to spill my blood,” Mr. Cho said in a video. “You forced me into a corner and gave me only one option.”
The package included 29 photographs, 27 short videos and an 1,800-word diatribe in which Mr. Cho expresses a desire to get even, though it does not say with whom, according to the NBC News program. In two photos, he looks like a typical smiling college student. In 11, he aims one or two handguns at the camera, posing as if in an action movie.
Several postings on Internet film sites noticed a similarity between the poses and scenes from “Oldboy,” a violent 2004 South Korean film.
As he prepared for the shooting, Mr. Cho filled out paperwork to buy handguns, rented a van and bought the cargo pants and vest that he wore. He appeared to have made the photos and videos by himself, a law enforcement official said.
“This kid, over a period of two and half to three weeks, there was a process where he was working himself up to this and he stayed for one night at a hotel in the general area, and that’s where he took the pictures of the gun," said the official, who insisted on anonymity. “And we’re assuming he made the video there.”
Mr. Cho mailed the package using Express Mail at 9:01 a.m., two hours after the first shootings, from the post office at 118 North Main Street, about a mile from his dorm room on campus, a spokesman for the Postal Service said.
Mr. Cho apparently returned to his room after the first shootings to assemble the package, which seemed to have been put together over six days, NBC News reported. The return address was “A. Ishmael,” similar to the cryptic phrase “Ismael Ax” that was found written on his arm.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company