Between Shootings, Police Interrogated Boyfriend of Dorm Victim

By Michael D. Shear and Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Even as the world's attention is riveted on Cho Seung Hui, another person -- the "person of interest" -- remains a murky character who could help explain what police were doing in the hours between the two shooting incidents at Virginia Tech.

Police revealed in an affidavit yesterday that they have searched the home of Karl D. Thornhill, a student at Radford University, for "firearms, ammunition, bloody clothing, footwear, and other tangible evidence associated with the alleged murders." Radford is about 15 miles from Virginia Tech, where Cho fatally shot 32 people and himself.

Officials have not named Thornhill specifically as the "person of interest" that they have talked about repeatedly in news conferences. But friends said Thornhill was the boyfriend of a female student killed by Cho in the dormitory early Monday, before killing 30 more people in an academic building two hours later. And they said Thornhill is the unidentified person police keep talking about -- and whom police were busy interrogating between the shootings.

Jay Miller, who described himself as a close friend of Thornhill's family, said Thornhill had dropped off Emily Hilscher at the West Ambler Johnston Hall dormitory a few moments before Cho arrived.

After dropping Hilscher at the dorm, Thornhill, a star high school baseball player, headed to class in his pickup, Miller said.

When police arrived at the Virginia Tech dorm, they found Hilscher critically wounded, shot by a then-unknown assailant. With little else to go on, the police defaulted to what one law enforcement source said would have been right "90 percent" of the time -- looking for a boyfriend.

Police interviewed students in the dorm and found out Thornhill was Hilscher's boyfriend.

Armed with Thornhill's name, a description of his truck and a sense of where he would be, police caught up with him on Route 460, returning from his morning class at Radford. They stopped him, ordered him out of the car and handcuffed him, according to Miller. Without naming Thornhill, police described the same scene.

The interrogation took place roadside. Why is your girlfriend dead? they demanded, Miller said after talking to Thornhill's father Monday afternoon. Then authorities discovered that there had been a second series of shootings in an academic building, more than two hours after the dorm shooting.

Thornhill was released. And authorities have since confirmed that the gun Cho used to kill 30 people in Norris Hall was the gun that killed Hilscher and another student at the dorm. They also have said Cho acted alone.

Miller said the Hilscher and Thornhill families are angry at Virginia Tech for what he called a botched investigation that led police to Thornhill even as Cho was plotting his second attacks.

"He's out there on 460 with the cuffs on him [when] they get a report that . . . more people have been shot," Miller said. "They think that they've got it contained, right there. So they don't bother to notify the rest of campus."

He added: "They blamed it on a domestic incident when it wasn't."

In the affidavit filed in Montgomery County, Va., Circuit Court, Virginia Tech police detective Stephanie J. Henley wrote of conflicting information about guns owned by Thornhill.

Thornhill told investigators that he had taken the guns to his parents' house in Boston, Va., and that he had been at his home over the weekend, the affidavit said. But after interviews with witnesses, "It is reasonable to believe that Thornhill has these guns still in his residence in Blacksburg," Henley wrote in the affidavit.

Thornhill was not home yesterday, according to roommates who answered the door.

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