Suspicious male seen on April 14

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ROANOKE — Two days before a gunman killed 30 persons and himself in a Virginia Tech classroom building, a suspicious male was noticed in the building and at least one of the exterior doors was found to be chained shut, police said yesterday.

One person saw the man, wearing a hooded sweat shirt, in Norris Hall at about 10 a.m. on Saturday, April 14, Virginia Tech Police Chief Wendell Flinchum said at the first police press conference in months. Someone else found a door chained, he said.

Police did not learn of the April 14 incident until after student Seung-hui Cho methodically killed 25 students and five faculty members in four Norris Hall classrooms on the morning of April 16 after killing two persons in a dormitory, Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said. Police would not say who reported seeing the man, or who found the door chained.

“It would be speculation to suggest that he was practicing locking the doors,” said State Police Superintendent W. Steven Flaherty.

Cho chained shut most of the exits from Norris Hall before calmly firing 174 rounds of ammunition in just over nine minutes. He never uttered a word as he also wounded 23 persons, Col. Flaherty said. Cho took his own life as police broke into the building and stormed up the stairs.

Police said yesterday they still have not linked Cho to any of his victims and have not established a motive for the attacks, which they have determined he carried out alone.

“Why West Ambler Johnston? Why room 4040? And why Emily Hilscher? We just don’t know,” said Chief Flinchum, referring to one of Cho’s first victims and the dormitory room where she lived.

Police have not been able to find the hard drive to Cho’s computer, which they think might supply some of the answers to their questions.

“That’s a piece of evidence we would love to find, along with his cell phone and possibly some other documents,” Col. Flaherty said.

A student saw an Asian male near a campus pond that morning, but authorities found nothing when they drained the pond.

Chief Flinchum said Cho returned to his dormitory at 7:17 that morning after killing Miss Hilscher and resident assistant Ryan Clark. At 7:25 a.m., he called up his personal e-mail account, deleted information and closed the account, the police chief said.

Cho also changed out of his jeans and tennis shoes and hid them in his room, Chief Flinchum said. Laboratory tests showed both had Mr. Clark’s blood on them, he said, and a shoe print found in the hallway outside Miss Hilscher’s room matched Cho’s shoe.

Cho began preparing for the shooting rampage early this year by buying the first of two guns he used, Chief Flinchum said, but police have nothing to indicate that the date of April 16 held any special meaning. Nor have they found any significance to the words “Ax Ishmael” written in red ink on Cho’s left arm.

Investigators have determined that a series of bomb threats found on the Virginia Tech campus in the days leading up to the shootings were not Cho’s work, Chief Flinchum said.

“However, Cho did leave a handwritten bomb threat note inside Norris Hall on the morning of April 16. He posted it on an interior door and it was taken off by a faculty member and handed over to a custodian,” he said.

No bomb was found in the building, and investigators did not find the note until a few hours after the shootings, he said. It was on a desk in one of the rooms.

Cho had a history of mental problems. He had been ordered to receive outpatient treatment after being involuntarily committed overnight at a mental health center near Radford in December 2005 after police received a report that he was suicidal.

It hasn’t been disclosed whether he received counseling. But Col. Flaherty said yesterday that “we know he had multiple contacts with mental health facilities,” including Tech’s Cook Counseling Center.

Col. Flaherty said about 12 state police agents are still interviewing witnesses.

A report is expected later this month from a state panel named by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine that has looked into the shootings — the worst in modern U.S. history.

Associated Press writer Kristen Gelineau in Richmond contributed to this report.

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