MASSACRE AT VIRGINIA TECH: AN ANGRY MESSAGE
Shooter took a break to send an angry message
Cho sent a package to NBC between shootings. Contacts with police and mental health experts are revealed.
By Richard A. Serrano and David Zucchino
Times Staff Writers
April 19, 2007
BLACKSBURG, VA. — In a chilling video made public Wednesday, Virginia Tech gunman Seung-hui Cho declared: "This didn't have to happen," likening himself to the Columbine killers and talking of his hatred for the wealthy.
Cho mailed the package, which contained an 1,800-word diatribe and multiple photos of him aiming handguns at the camera, at 9:01 Monday morning. That was nearly two hours after he had killed two students in a dormitory and minutes before he stormed a classroom building and killed 30 more people before turning a gun on himself.
He sent his parcel to NBC in New York, which made copies of the material before turning it over to authorities.
In an often-incoherent monotone laced with obscenities, Cho says that "you had a hundred billion chances and ways to have avoided today…. But you decided to spill my blood. You forced me into a corner and gave me only one option. The decision was yours. Now you have blood on your hands that will never wash off."
In one of the more than 40 still photographs, Cho poses with arms outstretched, wearing black gloves, as he points two firearms — presumably the Walther P22 and the 9-millimeter Glock he used to gun down students and teachers. Dressed in a black shirt, khaki military-style vest and black cap turned backward, Cho stares ominously into the camera.
"When the time came, I did it," he says. "I had to."
The dramatic disclosure came on a day when authorities also revealed that Cho was involuntarily hospitalized overnight in late 2005 for a mental evaluation after two female students complained to campus police that he was stalking them. Virginia Tech Police Chief Wendell R. Flinchum said that the women had received calls and computer messages from Cho that they considered annoying but not threatening, and neither pressed charges.
According to the December 2005 detention order, state officials thought there was "probable cause to believe" that Cho was "mentally ill and in need of hospitalization, and presents an imminent danger to self or others as a result of mental illness, or is seriously mentally ill as to be substantially unable to care for" himself.
The physician's assessment of Cho noted that he appeared "flat" and that "his mood is depressed."
According to many around the Virginia Tech campus who knew Cho, he kept up the visage of a loner uninterested in the world — until Monday morning.
Federal law enforcement sources said Cho sent his materials, which were filled with profanity and railed against the wealthy and the religious, by Express Mail from the Blacksburg post office just off campus. He listed his name on the package as "Ishmael."
He apparently began working on the materials at least six days before the massacre, NBC said. But some of his rantings appeared to have been recorded after the first two slayings occurred around 7:15 a.m. in West Ambler Johnston Hall.
About 40 minutes after mailing the package, Cho was on the second floor of Norris Hall. There, he burst into crowded classrooms and began shooting students and teachers indiscriminately, many of them at powder-burn range.
Armed with the two weapons and about 50 rounds of ammunition, the 23-year-old immigrant from South Korea nearly emptied both chambers before shooting himself.
But Cho's mailing, coming two days after the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history, suggests he intended to be heard from beyond the grave.
Some of the video shows him talking from inside a car. At other times, he is shown in front of a cinderblock wall.
Karan Grewal, one of Cho's roommates, said that when he saw the footage, he could not believe it was the same person he had shared a six-person suite with since last fall.
"It was a totally different person," the 21-year-old accounting major said. "He was staring straight at the camera, and he never stared into our eyes or even looked at us."
Grewal listened to Cho growl and mumble on camera, but said: "I never heard his voice while I was in the room with him." And it looked, Grewal said, like Cho had filmed the video inside their Harper Hall suite — the same white walls, the same maroon couch.
"It was scary, because it looks like it was in my room," Grewal said. "I could have come home."
Cho apparently sent some of the materials in text files and recorded others onto computer discs. According to NBC, the package included 27 QuickTime video files showing Cho talking into the camera. He does not direct his anger at any specific person, but does mention "sin" and spilling his blood. He speaks at length about how much he loathes the wealthy. His voice often is soft and uneven, difficult to understand.
"I could have left," he says. "I could have fled. But no. I will no longer run. If not for me, for my children, for my brothers and sisters. I did it for them…. The time came and I did it. I had to do what I did."
The son of parents who left a life of poverty in South Korea to run a dry-cleaning business and raise their children in Virginia, Cho turned his venom on people of privilege in the U.S.
"You had everything you wanted. Your Mercedes wasn't enough, you brats? Your golden necklaces weren't enough, you snobs? Your trust fund wasn't enough?"
He adds, "Thanks to you, I die like Jesus Christ, who inspired generations of the weak and the defenseless people."
It appears Cho spent some time putting the package together, said NBC News President Steve Capus. The shooter broke the video down into snippets that were embedded paragraph by paragraph into the main document.
In about a dozen photos, Capus said, Cho aims handguns at the camera that are "consistent with what we've heard about the guns in this incident."
Other photos show Cho holding a knife or a hammer. Some are of hollow-point bullets lined up on a table. In another, he points a gun at his head.
In the written text, Cho likens himself to "Eric and Dylan." Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were the teenage shooters who carried out the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado, killing 12 students and one instructor before taking their own lives.
Police and university officials said Wednesday that after the two women complained that Cho was stalking them, an unidentified acquaintance of his called authorities to express concern that Cho might be suicidal.
According to student Patrick Song, 21, one of the women was Christina Lilick. "I just remember she was very concerned that he was contacting her," he said.
Lilick could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
But a message attributed to her that was left on Song's Face book.com page reads, in reference to Cho and the shootings: "the first thought that ran through my head that geez, please dont let it be him…. and sure enough, look who it turned out to be. i'm ok, and i hope you and everyone else you know is too."
University police questioned Cho in November and December 2005 after one woman said he tried to contact her by phone and in person, and a second woman said he sent her instant messages.
On Dec. 13 of that year, campus police again talked to Cho. They obtained a temporary detention order based on his voluntary evaluation session with a local mental health counselor. He was evaluated at Carilion Saint Albans, a private mental health facility in nearby Christiansburg, Va. According to records from that examination, Cho was "alleged to be mentally ill."
A physician assessment noted that "he denies suicidal ideation. He does not acknowledge symptoms of a thought disorder. His insight and judgment are normal."
Because Cho told them he had no plans or hallucinations about killing himself of others, he was held for 24 hours and then released on a court order recommending that he volunteer for counseling. Cho apparently never sought help.
Asked why Cho was not more closely monitored or asked to leave school, university Police Chief Flinchum said Cho had made no threats and was not violent. He said that police knew about Cho's bizarre writings for an English course, but that those too "did not express any threatening intention or allude to any criminal activity. No criminal violation had taken place."
Police said neither of the women who complained about Cho was among his shooting victims.
Gun purchases questioned
Some gun-control advocates and mental health experts on Wednesday questioned why Cho was able to purchase two handguns after having been declared mentally ill.
Authorities said that although Cho may have been extremely troubled, he was legally permitted to buy the guns because there was no record in his background check of him being involuntarily committed to a mental institution. In Virginia and many other states, even if someone voluntarily commits himself to a mental institution, he may still be able to purchase guns when he gets out.
Kristen Rand, legislative director for the Violence Policy Center, said that regardless of whether Cho was voluntarily or involuntarily committed, the judge's finding in the temporary detention order that he was mentally ill should have been enough to block the gun purchases. "Based on the determination that he was a danger to himself and to others, he should have been precluded from buying a gun," Rand said.
According to Virginia's Firearms Purchase Eligibility Test, a person who answers "yes" to any of a number of questions may be prohibited from purchasing or possessing a firearm. One of them asks whether the potential buyer has "ever been adjudicated legally incompetent, mentally incapacitated, or been involuntarily committed to a mental institution."
Even if Cho checked "no" on that question, Rand said, some record of his mental illness should have appeared in his background check. "It's very hard for them to argue that he didn't fit within the 'adjudicated as mental defective' category," she said. "So the question is, why wasn't that entered into the [criminal background] system?"
Other mental health professionals were cautious about what to make of how Virginia Tech handled Cho.
"If we felt that … a client represented a danger to himself or others, we'd have a duty to warn," said Dr. Chris Flynn, director of the Cook Counseling Center, part of the Division of Student Affairs at Virginia Tech. "That's why we have involuntary commitment procedures." He added: "We are ethically and legally required to do everything in our power to protect students and the general community."
Ada Meloy, director of legal and regulatory affairs at the American Council on Education in Washington, said that getting an involuntary commitment was a significant step, and she saw no reason to suspect officials were negligent in not doing more to monitor Cho.
She added that sometimes it was possible to put a troubled student on mandatory medical leave or declare him a persona non grata, which bans the student from campus. But privacy laws prohibit authorities from informing students that someone is a danger if that person has not committed a crime, Meloy said.
State laws limit the amount of time an individual can be held for mental health reasons, and an extended hold requires a hearing in most states.
Basically, laws seek a balance between the rights of the student and of the greater population.
"If the university were to try to ban everyone who had a psychiatric condition or mental disorder," Meloy said, "it would not succeed."
Serrano reported from Washington and Zucchino from Blacksburg. Times staff writers Faye Fiore and Josh Meyer in Washington and Adam Schreck and Erika Hayasaki in Blacksburg contributed to this report.
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Early police contacts with Virginia gunman
Fall 2005: Lucinda Roy, chairwoman of the Virginia Tech English department, tells campus police of her concerns about Seung-hui Cho's disturbing and angry writing assignments.
Nov. 27, 2005: Cho contacts a female student through telephone calls and in person. No direct threat is made, but she notifies the Virginia Tech police about what she calls his "annoying" communication and declines to press charges. Officers speak with Cho about it, and he is referred to the university disciplinary system.
Dec. 12, 2005: Cho sends instant messages to a second female student, who complains to the campus police. Again, there is no direct threat. Later the same day, an acquaintance of Cho contacts campus police, concerned that Cho might be suicidal. Officers meet with Cho again and talk with him at length, and ask him to speak to a counselor.
Dec. 13, 2005: Cho goes to a counselor voluntarily. Based on that meeting, a temporary detention order is obtained, and Cho is taken to Carilion Saint Albans behavioral facility in Christiansburg, Va. The detention order states that Cho is "mentally ill" and an "imminent danger" to himself or others.
Dec. 14, 2005: Cho is released from the center after signing an agreement that he understands he should voluntarily seek help.