By Jerry Markon and Sari Horwitz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 26, 2007
BLACKSBURG, Va., April 25 -- Seung Hui Cho stood outside as his first victim walked into the Virginia Tech dormitory early on the morning of the April 16 massacre. Witnesses told police that Cho -- wearing the same dark clothing he wore later when he continued his rampage at an academic building -- did not follow Emily Hilscher upstairs. Instead, he waited several minutes before entering the dorm, where he fatally shot Hilscher and the resident adviser who came to her aid.
At a news conference Wednesday, Virginia State Police officials said Cho's actions outside the West Ambler Johnston dorm are clues in the mystery they are trying to unravel as they investigate what motivated Cho that morning. They have found no connection between Cho and either of the first two victims -- supporting one theory that he did not target Hilscher.
State police offered several new and chilling details about the deadliest shooting by an individual in U.S. history, saying that Cho's later attack at Norris Hall lasted nine minutes and that he squeezed off more than 170 rounds. Law enforcement officials said they found 17 ammunition magazines at the scene.
They said they have read reams of e-mail and cellphone records and interviewed hundreds of witnesses but have found no explanation for Cho's actions. In fact, they said, they may never know why Cho started at the dorm, waited more than two hours and then killed 30 more people at Norris Hall.
The first 911 call from Norris came at 9:32 a.m., investigators said. Police arrived three minutes later and found that Cho had chained all three entrances shut.
It took officers five minutes to breach the doors. As they ran upstairs to the second floor, the final shot was fired -- Cho's self-inflicted wound to the head.
Authorities said Wednesday that Cho still had ammunition for the 9mm pistol he used in the shooting. He also used a .22-caliber handgun.
Police said at the news conference that Cho was familiar with Norris Hall because he had a class there this semester. Law enforcement sources, who declined to be identified because their information went beyond the official briefing, said the classes met on Tuesdays and Thursdays; the shootings were on a Monday.
The sources said Cho made a short telephone call the day before the massacre to his family in Fairfax County. Authorities believe it was the last call he made.
Col. Steven Flaherty, the state police superintendent, said the investigators who are leading the state and federal probe are pursuing "hundreds of leads" and "haven't ventured to speak" to Cho's family yet. He later said that FBI agents have spoken to family members, but he would not elaborate. The sources said the family has been cooperative but was unable to shed light on Cho's motives.
The Chos left their home the day of the shootings for an undisclosed location, though the sources said the family is in Northern Virginia. Family members have not commented, other than in a statement released through an attorney last week in which they said they feel "hopeless, helpless and lost" and "are so deeply sorry for the devastation."
Wednesday's news conference provided more information on the massacre, during which Cho, 23, killed Hilscher and resident adviser Ryan Clark at West Ambler Johnston before gunning down victims at Norris Hall and shooting himself.
But police said it might be months before they finish interviewing witnesses and reviewing the mass of evidence collected. "Quite frankly, the evidence we've gathered just in Norris Hall fills up a significant-sized trailer in a storage area," Flaherty said.
Flaherty said investigators have been unable to establish a motive for the shootings. "We haven't been able to determine what precipitated the event," he said. "We talk about possible motives and theories, but we don't have any evidence to support anything." Cho left a note in his dorm room and sent material to NBC railing against the rich and privileged and comparing himself to the downtrodden, but officials said the material does not explain his actions.
Investigators are examining several possible scenarios, law enforcement sources said. One theory is that Cho planned to shoot people at only the dormitory but found that students' doors were locked. He then accidentally found Hilscher about 7:15 a.m.
One problem with this theory, the sources said, is that if Cho had limited his attack to the dorm, he would not have been able to mail the package of videos and written diatribes to NBC. Sources said, however, that witnesses have been unable to place Cho in the Blacksburg post office where the NBC package was received at 9:01 a.m., raising the possibility that someone else mailed it.
Flaherty said the evidence so far indicates that Cho acted alone and that "we can't find anybody who seems to have assisted him in any fashion." He added that it's too soon to say "categorically" that there was no accomplice.
Another theory is that Cho committed the first shootings as a diversion, wanting police to be at the dormitory while he continued at Norris Hall. But investigators still remain puzzled about Cho's motives, where he went between the shootings and the connection between the two events.
"We may never know," said one investigator.
What does seem clear is that Cho planned the killings for months.
On Feb. 9, he picked up the Walther .22-caliber pistol at a pawnshop across from the campus, more than a month before he bought the Glock 9mm and a box of 50 cartridges at Roanoke Firearms.
Police said Cho practiced firing the weapons at several local shooting ranges. He also began working out at a gym in recent months, his suitemates have said.
He bought the chains in March at a nearby Home Depot and Wal-Mart, though investigators are not sure which chain was bought where, the sources said. On April 8, Cho rented a room at a Hampton Inn in Christiansburg, near the Blacksburg campus. Investigators believe it was there that he filmed part of the video that was mailed to NBC between the shootings at the dorm and at Norris. Cho also was visited by a dancer from an escort service when he rented another local hotel room in late March, the sources added.
Tracy Harmon, a spokeswoman for Quality Oil Co., which owns the Hampton Inn, said employees "are in the process of cooperating fully with law enforcement."
Cho is also believed to have recorded some of the video footage in a burgundy Kia Sedona van that he rented March 12 from Enterprise Rent-a-Car at Roanoke Regional Airport. Sources said he returned the van April 10. A spokesman for Enterprise declined to comment.
Frustrating the police investigation is the fact that Cho revealed himself to so few people. "I guess the thing that is most startling to me . . . is a young man who's 23 years old, that's been here for a while, that seemed to not know anybody," Flaherty said.
Horwitz reported from Washington.