Virginia Tech gunman sent pictures and video to NBC

Thursday, April 19, 2007
Virginia Tech students prayed and read the Bible Wednesday on the drill field at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. Two days after the tragic shootings, many faith-based groups arrived on campus to help council the grieving community. (Sam Dean ~ The Roanoke Times)

A time stamp on the package indicated it was mailed in the two-hour window between the shootings.

BLACKSBURG, Va. -- Between his first and second bursts of gunfire, the Virginia Tech gunman mailed a package to NBC News containing what authorities said were images of him brandishing weapons and a video of him delivering a diatribe about getting even with rich people.

"This may be a very new, critical component of this investigation. We're in the process right now of attempting to analyze and evaluate its worth," said Col. Steve Flaherty, superintendent of Virginia State Police. He gave no details on the material.

NBC said that a time stamp on the package indicated the material was mailed in the two-hour window between the first burst of gunfire in a high-rise dormitory and the second fusillade, at a classroom building. Thirty-three people died in the rampage, including the gunman, 23-year-old student Cho Seung-Hui, who committed suicide.

The package included digital images of him holding weapons and a manifesto that "rants against rich people and warns that he wants to get even," according to a law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the case.

MSNBC said the package included a CD-ROM on which Cho read his manifesto.

"NBC Nightly News" planned to show some of the material Wednesday night, MSNBC reported.

NBC said it promptly turned the package over to authorities on Wednesday.

If the package was indeed mailed between the first attack and the second, that would help explain where Cho was and what he did during that two-hour window.

Earlier in the day Wednesday, authorities disclosed that more than a year before the massacre, Cho was accused of stalking two women and was taken to a psychiatric hospital on a magistrate's orders because of fears he might be suicidal. He was later released with orders to undergo outpatient treatment.

Warning signs

The disclosure added to the rapidly growing list of warning signs that appeared well before the student opened fire. Among other things, Cho's twisted, violence-filled writings and sullen, vacant-eyed demeanor had disturbed professors and students so much that he was removed from one English class and was repeatedly urged to get counseling.

In November and December 2005, two women complained to campus police that they had received calls and computer messages from Cho, but they considered the messages "annoying," not threatening, and neither pressed charges, Virginia Tech police chief Wendell Flinchum said.

Neither woman was among the victims in the massacre, police said.

Around the same time, one of Cho's professors informally shared some concerns about the young man's writings, but no official report was filed, Flinchum said.

After the second stalking complaint, the university obtained a temporary detention order and took Cho away because an acquaintance reported he might be suicidal, authorities said. Police did not identify the acquaintance.

On Dec. 13, 2005, a magistrate ordered Cho to undergo an evaluation at Carilion St. Albans, a private psychiatric hospital. The magistrate signed the order after an initial evaluation found probable cause that Cho was a danger to himself or others as a result of mental illness.

The next day, according to court records, doctors at Carilion conducted further examination and a special justice, Paul M. Barnett, approved outpatient treatment.

A medical examination conducted Dec. 14 found that Cho's "affect is flat. ... He denies suicidal ideations. He does not acknowledge symptoms of a thought disorder. His insight and judgment are normal."

The court papers indicate that Barnett checked a form that Cho "presents an imminent danger to himself as a result of mental illness." Barnett did not check the box that would indicate a danger to others. He ordered Cho to comply with all recommended treatments on an outpatient basis.

It is unclear how long Cho stayed at Carilion, though court papers indicate he was free to leave as of Dec. 14. Virginia Tech spokesman Larry Hincker said Cho had been continually enrolled at Tech and never took a leave of absence.

A spokesman for Carilion St. Albans would not comment.

Though the stalking incidents did not result in criminal charges, police referred Cho to the university's disciplinary system, Flinchum said. But Ed Spencer, assistant vice president of student affairs, would not comment on any disciplinary proceedings, saying federal law protects students' medical privacy even after death.

Some parents complained that more had not been done after the first shootings. Still, two days after the shooting spree, many students resisted pointing fingers.

"Who would've woken up in the morning and said, 'Maybe this student who's just troubled is really going to do something this horrific?"' said Elizabeth Hart, a communications major and a spokeswoman for the student government.

Jen Meadows, the student president of Sexual Assault and Dating Violence Education by Students, said at first she was "very, very mad at the administration."

But the more she learned about Cho, the more convinced she became that there was no way the killings could have been prevented. "People who are this mentally ill, there's not much more anyone could do with someone who's going to snap," she said.

Police searched Cho's dorm room and recovered, among other items, two computers, books, notebooks, a digital camera, and a chain and combination lock, according to documents. The front doors of Norris Hall, the classroom building where most of the victims died, had been chained shut from the inside during the rampage.

Fourteen people remained hospitalized Wednesday.

Lucinda Roy, professor of English at Virginia Tech, said that she, too, relayed her concerns to campus police and various other college units after Cho displayed antisocial behavior in her class and handed in disturbing writing assignments.

But she said authorities "hit a wall" in terms of what they could do "with a student on campus unless he'd made a very overt threat to himself or others."

Cho resisted her repeated suggestion that he undergo counseling, Roy said. "I wish I could have lifted him up bodily and taken him. I would have done it if I could," she said.

One of the first Virginia Tech officials to recognize Cho's problems was award-winning poet Nikki Giovanni, who kicked him out of her introduction to creative writing class in late 2005.

Students in Giovanni's class had told their professor that Cho was taking photographs of their legs and knees under the desks with his cell phone. Female students refused to come to class. She said she considered him "mean" and "a bully."

Questions lingered over whether campus police should have issued an immediate campus-wide warning of a killer on the loose and locked down the campus after the first burst of gunfire.

Police said that after the first shooting, in which two students were killed, they believed that it was a domestic dispute, and that the gunman had fled the campus. Police went looking for a young man, Karl David Thornhill, who had once shot guns at a firing range with the roommate of one of the victims. But police said Thornhill is no longer under suspicion.

Colleges and universities are considering a host of new security measures in the aftermath of the massacre, including outdoor warning systems, text message alerts and cameras that detect suspicious activity.

"Would a blast e-mail have been the most effective tool in notifying people of Monday's events?" asked John Holden, a spokesman for DePaul University in Chicago. "Some of the coverage I'm seeing suggests that old-fashioned emergency alarms or broadcast announcements would probably have been more effective."

Associated Press writers Allen G. Breed, Vicki Smith, Sue Lindsey and Justin Pope in Blacksburg, Va., Matt Barakat in Richmond, Va., and Colleen Long and Tom Hays in New York contributed to this report.

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