- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 15, 2008

BLACKSBURG, Va. (AP) — Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger remembers being relieved when he learned that police had someone in custody after two students were killed in a dormitory. Moments later, the sound of gunfire erased that comfort.

“We could hear the shots from the boardroom here, where we were all assembled,” Mr. Steger said, referring to an executive committee assembled after the dormitory slayings a year ago tomorrow. “There were people running down the sidewalks with automatic weapons.”

Mr. Steger said police were too busy to explain what was happening, even as the terrifying sounds continued in the building next to Mr. Steger’s Burruss Hall office.

“No one knew what was going on,” Mr. Steger told the Associated Press.

Although the events of that morning that gripped a nation have been detailed extensively in all their horror, one question remains unanswered: What caused student Seung-hui Cho to stage the worst mass shooting by an individual in modern U.S. history?

Two hours after shooting the two students in West Ambler Johnston dormitory, Cho methodically gunned down 25 students and five faculty members in a classroom wing of Norris Hall. He took his own life as police stormed the building.

Cho, a 23-year-old loner with a history of mental troubles, left behind no explanation.

“His secretive nature and the fact that he confided in no one about his plans have made it extremely challenging for investigators to reconstruct the events of his life and activities leading up to and on April 16,” Virginia State Police Superintendent Col. W. Steven Flaherty said. “There is nobody out there to corroborate our findings and theories.”

Cho carefully disposed of the few pieces of evidence that might be a window into his psyche. Despite an extensive search that included draining a pond on campus, police have never found the hard drive to Cho’s computer, his cell phone or even his wallet.

For instance, there is no apparent link between Cho and his first victim, which might be disclosed by his computer files or cell-phone calls. Emily Jane Hilscher was shot in her room about 7:15 that morning, and resident assistant Ryan Clark was slain a few minutes later as he apparently came to her aid.

The person whom police took into custody that morning, Miss Hilscher’s boyfriend, had nothing to do with her death.

Police also don’t know whether the date of April 16 held any special meaning to Cho, nor have they found any significance to the words “Ax Ishmael” that were written in red ink on his left arm.

Ed Spencer, a Virginia Tech associate vice president for student affairs, went to West Ambler Johnston as police converged after Miss Hilscher and Mr. Clark were killed. He was standing with Virginia Tech Police Chief Wendell Flinchum and Blacksburg Chief Kimberley Crannis when they were shocked by the report of the Norris Hall shootings.

“To think that someone who did that in a residence hall would then engage in a mass shooting,” Mr. Spencer said. “It was just not in our minds at all.”

The investigation led by state and Virginia Tech police is expected to continue for several months. State police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said investigators are reviewing more than 30 volumes of reports and transcriptions of some 450 telephone calls. They also have a federal report on some 250 pieces of ballistic evidence to analyze.

Mr. Spencer is a member of a new Virginia Tech team of administrators and counselors formed to deal with troubled students. He said the group has looked at other cases of school violence and found there’s no profile of a campus killer.

“Sometimes it’s a very bright student. Sometimes it’s a marginal student,” he said. “Sometimes it’s a student about which there was some history known. Sometimes it’s out of the blue. Sometimes it’s a student who was seeking vengeance on some particular group, and other times it’s random shooting.”

Cho, a senior from Centreville, was known to a group of Virginia Tech administrators that deals with student problems, Mr. Spencer said. Faculty and students found his creative writings disturbing, and two women complained to campus police of his annoying behavior. He had been committed to a mental health center overnight after a report that he was suicidal in December 2005.

But Mr. Spencer said school officials had no information to suspect that he could stage a massacre.

“If a fortune teller had told us that someone on our list would do what he did, he would not have been the person we would have suspected,” he said.

However, suspicious activity by a man matching Cho’s description was noticed around Norris Hall for weeks before the shootings.

Allen Neely, a contractor working inside the building, had noticed an Asian man in a black sweater skulking around for at least six weeks. The man would march by Norris while frequently checking his watch as if counting his steps, Mr. Neely said.

A door to the building also was found chained shut two days before the shootings, police said. Cho chained the exterior doors before his rampage.

“He knew where the biggest concentration of kids were. He knew which building to lock. He cased the joint. And I watched him do it,” said Mr. Neely, 60, of Narrows. “Isn’t that awful?”

AP writer Kristen Gelineau in Richmond contributed to this report.

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