Blacksburg: Two-Hour Delay Is Linked to Bad Lead


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

April 18, 2007

Two-Hour Delay Is Linked to Bad Lead

BLACKSBURG, Va., April 17 ‹ The police identified Cho Seung-Hui, a 23-year-old 
student, as the killer of 32 people in the shooting rampage at the Virginia 
Polytechnic Institute, releasing new information on Tuesday about the troubled 
mind of a young man few people on campus knew.

Federal investigators said Mr. Cho ‹ a South Korean immigrant who Americanized 
his name and preferred to be known as Seung Cho ‹ left behind a note that they 
described as a lengthy, rambling and bitter list of complaints focusing on moral
laxity and double-dealing he found among what he viewed as wealthier and more 
privileged students on campus.

And new information emerged that may help explain a fateful two-hour delay by 
university officials in warning the campus of a gunman at large. According to 
search warrants and statements from the police, campus investigators had been 
busy pursuing what appears to have been a fruitless lead in the first of two 
shooting episodes Monday.

After two people, Emily Jane Hilscher, a freshman, and Ryan Clark, the resident 
adviser whose room was nearby in the dormitory, were shot dead, the campus 
police began searching for Karl D. Thornhill, who was described in Internet 
memorials as Ms. Hilscher¹s boyfriend.

According to a search warrant filed by the police, Ms. Hilscher¹s roommate had 
told the police that Mr. Thornhill, a student at nearby Radford University, had 
guns at his town house. The roommate told the police that she had recently been 
at a shooting range with Mr. Thornhill, the affidavit said, leading the police 
to believe he may have been the gunman.

But as they were questioning Mr. Thornhill, reports of widespread shooting at 
Norris Hall came in, making it clear that they had not contained the threat on 
campus. Mr. Thornhill was not arrested, although he continues to be an important
witness in the case, the police said.

At the time of the dormitory shootings, Col. W. Steven Flaherty, the 
superintendent of the Virginia State Police, said, ³There was certainly no 
evidence or no reason to think that there was anyone else at that particular 
point in time.²

State officials continued to defend the actions of the campus authorities. John 
W. Marshall, the Virginia secretary of public safety, said Charles W. Steger, 
the president of Virginia Tech, and Chief Wendell Flinchum of the campus police 
³made the right decisions based on the best information that they had available 
at the time.²

At an afternoon news briefing, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine said Dr. Steger had asked 
him to appoint a committee to examine the university¹s response and try to 
answer some of the remaining questions about the gunman¹s actions.

After the shootings, the state police executed another search warrant, this time
for Mr. Cho¹s dormitory room. The warrant said a bomb threat against the 
engineering school buildings was found near Mr. Cho¹s body. The warrant 
mentioned two other bomb threat notes against the campus received over the past 
three weeks.

Mr. Cho had used two handguns, a 9-millimeter and a .22-caliber, to shoot dozens
of rounds, leaving even those who survived with multiple bullet wounds, 
officials said. The guns were bought legally in March and April. Colonel 
Flaherty said that although one of those guns had been used in the dormitory 
shooting, investigators were not ready to conclude that the same gunman was 
responsible for both episodes. But he said there was no evidence of another 
gunman or an accomplice.

Among the central unknowns is what prompted the gunman to move to Norris Hall, 
which contains engineering and other classrooms, where all but the first two 
killings took place. The authorities said Mr. Cho¹s preparations, including 
chaining the doors, suggested planning and premeditation, rather than a 
spontaneous event.

Bodies were found in four classrooms and the stairwell of the building, Colonel 
Flaherty said.

³You all have reported that this is the most horrific incident that¹s occurred 
on a college campus in our country, and the scene certainly bore that out,² he 
said. ³Personal effects were strewn about the entire second floor at Norris 
Hall. So it made it much more difficult for us to identify students and faculty 
members that were victims.²

Officers also found several knives on Mr. Cho¹s body. They first identified him 
by a driver¹s license found in a backpack near the scene of the shootings, 
although it was not clear at first whether the backpack belonged to the gunman. 
But the name was checked against a visa application, and when a fingerprint on 
one of the weapons matched a print on the visa application, the authorities made
a positive identification. The print matched another print left in the first 
shooting location.

Prescription medications said to be related to treatment of psychological 
problems were found among Mr. Cho¹s effects, but officials did not specify what 
drugs they were.

In addition, investigators were reviewing recent bomb threats at the university 
in an effort to determine whether the gunman might have been involved in them, 
as an effort to test the university¹s emergency response procedures.

Lucinda Roy, an English professor, said Mr. Cho¹s writing, laced with anger, 
profanity and violence, concerned several faculty members. In 2005, she sent 
examples to the campus police, the campus counseling service and other 
officials. All were worried, but little could be done, she said.

Ms. Roy said she would offer to go with Mr. Cho to counseling, just to talk. 
³But he wouldn¹t say yes, and unfortunately I couldn¹t force him to do it,² she 
said. Students were also alarmed that Mr. Cho was taking inappropriate pictures 
of women under desks, she said.

In all, 33 people died Monday, including Mr. Cho and at least four faculty 
members. The victims¹ names were not officially released, but most appeared to 
be in their late teens or early 20s. They included Liviu Librescu, a Holocaust 
survivor, and Reema Samaha, a freshman and a devoted dancer. Ms. Hilscher wanted
to be a veterinarian; Mr. Clark was a member of the marching band. ³This is a 
grief that does not know an international boundary,² Governor Kaine said.

By Tuesday afternoon there were still 14 injured victims at four hospitals, out 
of 28 initially transported from the scene, two of whom died. The 14 included 
two at a Level 1 trauma center in Roanoke, one in critical condition and the 
other in serious condition.

One of the luckier ones was Kevin Sterne, a senior who will graduate in a few 
weeks. He was hit twice in the right thigh, piercing an artery.

Mr. Sterne grabbed an electrical cord and fashioned a tourniquet until help 
arrived. ³I think there¹s a good chance he would have died,² said Dr. David B. 
Stoeckle of Montgomery Regional Hospital in Blacksburg.

Classes at Virginia Tech were canceled for the rest of the week, and Dr. Steger 
announced that Norris Hall would remain closed for the rest of the semester.

Thousands of students and faculty and staff members gathered Tuesday afternoon 
at Cassell Coliseum, the university¹s basketball arena, for a solemn 
convocation. President Bush and Laura Bush attended the gathering and then spent
much of the afternoon consoling members of the university family.

³This is a day of mourning for Virginia Tech, and it is a day of sadness for our
entire nation,² Mr. Bush said in his remarks.

The president said that Monday began like any other school day, but then took a 
dark turn.

³By the end of the morning,² he said, ³it was the worst day of violence on a 
college campus in American history ‹ and for many of you here today, it was the 
worst day of your lives.²

But Mr. Bush¹s consoling words, and those of various campus religious leaders 
and the poet Nikki Giovanni, could not silence the questions of at least some of
the stricken families.

³I guess we¹re a little curious as to why it took so long² to lock down the 
campus after the first two fatal shootings, said Kim Tate, the mother of a 
sophomore. Ms. Tate contrasted Monday¹s response to the rapid closing of the 
entire campus last summer after an incident involving an escaped convict in the 

Asian-American students at Virginia Tech reacted to news about the gunman¹s 
identity with shock and a measure of anxiety about a possible backlash against 

³My parents are actually worried about retaliation against Asians,² said Lyu 
Boaz, a third-year accounting student who was born in South Korea and became an 
American citizen a year ago. ³After 9/11, a lot of Arabs were attacked for that 

Mr. Boaz, a resident adviser at Pritchard Hall, said many Korean-American 
students had left campus immediately. Parents of other Korean-American students 
were preparing to pick up their children on Tuesday afternoon and take them 

Dr. Steger, the university president, has been at the center of this week¹s 
trauma, which he described as a horrible nightmare from which he hoped to awake.
Friends said that despite his stoic demeanor, the campus deaths had exacted a 
heavy toll on a man who has spent his entire adulthood at Virginia Tech, as a 
student, professor, dean and administrator.

³I think he¹s grieving beyond belief,² said Alan Merten, the president of George
Mason University in Fairfax, Va., who described himself as a colleague and old 
friend. ³I think he¹s suffering beyond belief.²

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

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