By Brigid Schulte and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 23, 2009
The missing mental health records of Seung Hui Cho, who was responsible for the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, mysteriously resurfaced last week in the home of the former director of the university's counseling center.
Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) announced Wednesday that the records, which neither the state police nor a state investigative commission had been able to locate, turned up as a result of pretrial discovery in two lawsuits that have been filed by families of Cho's victims.
University officials received the records last Thursday but did not inform state police until Monday and did not provide copies of the records to state police until Tuesday, five days after they were recovered, according to Corinne Geller, a state police spokeswoman.
Neither state officials nor the university have disclosed the contents of the records, but the governor said he hopes that they will be made public within days, either with permission from Cho's estate or through a subpoena.
Kaine (D) did not identify the Virginia Tech employee who had the records, but a memo written by a university lawyer identified him as Robert Miller. Miller headed the Cook Counseling Center at the university until 2006, the year before the Virginia Tech massacre, the worst mass shooting by an individual in U.S. history. On April 16, 2007, Cho killed 32 students and teachers and wounded many more before taking his own life.
Miller took Cho's records and those of "several other students" when he was transferred from the counseling center to the Human Resources Department, according to the memo from the Virginia Tech lawyer, Mary Beth Nash, to Kaine's office.
The records might shed light on Cho's mental state and clarify whether Virginia Tech counselors complied with a court order that he receive mental health treatment.
Relatives of victims, who have long argued that the university had lost track of a dangerously unbalanced student, expressed new concern about the school's handling of the case.
Families whose children were killed or injured in the attack said they were particularly disturbed that the documents turned up during a records search for two lawsuits, rather than during previous state investigations. Kaine's special commission on the shootings did not interview Miller, W. Gerald Massengill, the panel's chairman and a retired state police superintendent, said Wednesday.
"The words that come to mind are coverup, collusion, obstruction," said Mike Pohle, whose son was killed in the shootings. "I'm spinning. Who knows what could be in those records? But this is just potentially more information that says: Virginia Tech, you failed to do your job."
Pohle and Suzanne Grimes, whose son was wounded and still has a bullet in him, said the revelation might call into question the $11 million settlement that all but two families of victims signed with the university. "It just infuriates me that all of a sudden now, these records have magically appeared from a former director," she said. "When you retire, you take the pictures off the wall. You don't take records. It doesn't make sense. And it raises a whole new set of questions about accountability for Virginia Tech."
Kaine promised a full criminal investigation and said he was eager to learn more about the circumstances under which Cho's records were taken to Miller's home.
"I'm not going to make a statement about what is lawful," he said. "But the records should not have been removed from the center."
Neither Miller, who retired last year, nor his attorney responded to phone and e-mail messages Wednesday.
Virginia Tech spokesman Mark Owczarski said the university questioned Miller about Cho and the records shortly after the shootings. "Miller was asked if he knew the whereabouts of those files, and he said he did not," Owczarski said.
Geller, the state police spokeswoman, said she could not confirm whether Miller had been interviewed because the investigation into the 2007 massacre is still open.
"This is one of the reasons why we've kept the case open, because sometimes, over time, things reappear or are discovered," Geller said. "The state police are now investigating the circumstances, whereabouts and the discovery of the missing documents in order to determine if, in fact, a criminal act was committed."
Owczarski said the university received Cho's records "from Miller or his attorney" at 5 p.m. last Thursday. Kaine was informed through the state attorney general's office Monday.
Miller is named in lawsuits that two families of victims have filed against the university. The suits allege "gross negligence."
Robert Hall, the Fairfax County lawyer representing the families of slain students Julia Pryde and Erin Peterson, said that he had not seen the records but that from what he knows of Cho's contact with the therapist who saw him, it was an unexceptional encounter for her. "And I expect the records to be consistent with 'ho-hum,' " Hall said.
Hall called for an investigation of Miller's departure from the counseling center and of the removal of Cho's records from university property. "We now have ruled out that some low-level clerical person inadvertently placed them in the wrong file," Hall said. "We now find instead that the very top of the Cook Counseling Center had them."
Lucinda Roy, a Virginia Tech English professor who encouraged Cho to get counseling, said the late and mysterious reappearance of the records adds to concern that the university has been more concerned with preserving its reputation than with providing the public with a thorough account of how Cho's case was handled.
Roy said she had been in frequent contact with Miller about Cho's violent writings, flat affect and disturbing behavior. "He seemed to be a caring individual and responsive to problems, even though I was very disappointed that the counseling center could not have been more proactive," she said. "It was always puzzling to me that they couldn't find the records and there was not a huge push to try to find them."
Because of Cho's odd behavior, his stalking of a fellow student and his threats to kill himself, Cho was detained in a psychiatric hospital in December 2005. A judge found him to be a danger to himself and released him on condition that he receive mental health counseling. That day, at 3 p.m., Cho showed up at the Cook Counseling Center.
The long-missing records, Owczarski said, are now on file there.
Staff writer Tom Jackman and staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.