Earlier editions of this story misidentified where a bloody shoeprint was found following the shootings at Virginia Tech. It was found in the hallway outside the room of Emily Hilscher, who was gunned down in the West Ambler Johnston Dorm. This version has been corrected.
Did Cho Make Dry Run at Va. Tech?
Saturday, August 11, 2007
ROANOKE, Aug. 10 -- Seung Hui Cho might have tried a practice run two days before the April 16 massacre at Virginia Tech, chaining an entrance of the campus building where he would later walk from room to room, methodically killing 30 people before shooting himself, investigators said Friday.
A witness recalled seeing a man who wore a hooded sweat shirt that obscured his face lurking by the entrance to Norris Hall the morning of April 14, police said at a news conference. A second witness said one set of doors was briefly chained shut about the same time. Cho, 23, chained all three entrances during the attack two days later, slowing the police response.
But Col. W. Steven Flaherty, the state police superintendent, said police cannot say with certainty that the person who chained the Norris Hall doors shut April 14 was Cho. "It would be speculation to suggest he was practicing on the door," Flaherty said.
Nearly four months after the deadliest shooting by an individual in U.S. history -- and despite conducting hundreds of interviews and collecting reams of evidence -- investigators said they cannot explain Cho's actions or motives or establish any links between him and his victims. "At this stage, we still have no evidence that answers the persistent question of why West Ambler Johnston . . . why Emily Hilscher," Virginia Tech Police Chief Wendell Flinchum said. "We just don't know."
Despite the lack of definitive answers, police held the news conference "because we are headed into our fourth month, and we wanted to let the public know that we are still actively investigating this," state police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said. "School is about to go back into session, and families and the community need some closure. We thought it was very timely."
Although Cho, of Centreville, publicized his actions by sending materials to NBC that railed against the rich and compared Cho to the downtrodden, he also took steps to cover his tracks. Investigators said that after first going to West Ambler Johnston, where he killed freshman Emily Hilscher and resident adviser Ryan Clark, he returned to his room at Harper Hall and deleted information from his personal e-mail account, along with the account itself. Neither his computer hard drive nor his cellphone has been found.
"That's a piece of evidence we'd love to have, along with his cellphone," Flaherty said.
Investigators have also definitively linked Cho to the fatal shootings of Clark and Hilscher with blood found on Cho's jeans and shoes, which he hid in his dorm room between the two attacks. Cho's shoes also matched a blood-stained print found in the hallway outside Hilscher's room.
The news conference, the first public update on the criminal investigation since April, comes as the state panel examining the massacre prepares to issue its final report this month and state legislators consider creating a taxpayer-financed fund to compensate the victims. Although police set no deadline for ending the criminal investigation, they made it clear Friday that they are engaged in a complicated dance with the panel over what information will be released to the public and who releases it.
"Along with you, we are anxiously awaiting the panel's work product," said Flaherty, who was careful to refrain from commenting on Cho's mental health history or other issues he called "within the panel's purview."
The panel's staff director has said the report will examine Cho's interactions with the state's mental health system, university security issues, gun laws, and the response to the shootings by the university and police.
Police offered a familiar narrative of Cho's actions, saying that he began planning the attack early this year and was calm and collected as he silently went between rooms at Norris Hall, peering into some before returning and opening fire. Cho squeezed off more than 170 rounds from a 9mm pistol and .22-caliber handgun before shooting himself in the head.
Investigators said they are pursuing a number of theories to explain Cho's actions but lack the evidence to settle on one explanation. They declined to comment on a theory presented in June in The Washington Post, which suggested that Cho displayed many of the characteristics of the criminal behavioral profile "Collector of Injustice," or someone who considers any misfortune against him the fault or responsibility of others.
Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, who assembled a sketch of Cho that they say fits that profile, also think Cho mentally and physically tried to transform himself into an alter ego he called "Ax Ishmael" before his rampage. The words "Ax Ishmael" were scrawled in red on Cho's left arm when his body was found in a Norris Hall classroom. Federal investigators said the term is based on the biblical figure Ishmael, the son of the prophet Abraham and Hagar, a maidservant to his wife.
"That release of information was not authorized by the investigative team," Flaherty said, adding that police do not know what, if any, significance "Ax Ishmael" might have in explaining Cho's actions.