By Rosalind S. Helderman and Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 24, 2009
The former director of the Virginia Tech college counseling center took the mental health records of Seung Hui Cho from his office accidentally when he changed jobs more than a year before the university massacre and reported them promptly when he located them in his home last week, his attorney said Thursday.
The claim came a day after Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) announced that a criminal investigation was underway into the unexpected reappearance of the records at the home of Robert Miller, former director of the Cook Counseling Center. The file had failed to turn up during the investigation that followed the shootings in April 2007, when Cho killed 32 students and teachers and himself.
Kaine said Miller's claim needs to be evaluated. An attorney for the families of two of Cho's victims said he was skeptical of Miller's version of events.
Also Thursday, an attorney for Cho's estate, Bernard J. DiMuro of Alexandria, said the family is considering a request by state officials that it allow the newly discovered file to be made public as quickly as possible. DiMuro said he has submitted the issue to the Cho family's attorney, Wade Smith of Raleigh, N.C., and is waiting for a response. He said the family promptly agreed in 2007 to cooperate fully with the investigation of the case, but two years later, "the disclosure of these records invokes complicated issues of privacy versus the rights of the public to have access to the records."
Miller's attorney, Edward J. McNelis, said Miller inadvertently put Cho's records into a box that also contained personal documents when he left the employ of the counseling center in February 2006, 14 months before the shooting. McNelis said that Miller's departure was unrelated to Cho and that Miller was surprised to discover the file in recent days while looking for documents about his employment in connection with a civil suit filed by the families of two of Cho's victims against him, the university, the counseling center and others.
McNelis said Miller found the file one evening last week and handed it over to the counseling center the next morning.
"Dr. Miller deeply regrets that his inadvertence has caused so much distress for the families of the victims as well as his former colleagues at Virginia Tech," McNelis said in a statement provided to the Associated Press. "Dr. Miller's candor and diligence in returning these records to the Cook Counseling Center dispels any inference of ill intent."
Kaine said Thursday that authorities are working to determine whether Miller is telling the truth about how and why he took the documents. Regardless of the details, Kaine said the confidential health files should never have been removed from the center.
"I understand there's a claim that it was inadvertent," he said. "That could in fact be the case. But we'll just have to let the law enforcement process and the investigation process take its course to determine the accuracy of that."
Robert Hall, a Fairfax County lawyer representing the families of slain students Julia Pryde and Erin Peterson, whose lawsuit prompted the file's discovery, said he has doubts. When Miller was director of the counseling center, he had been repeatedly warned about Cho's erratic and troubling behavior and violent writing by Lucinda Roy, an English professor who had been tutoring Cho. Hall noted that Miller was the center's supervisor, not Cho's therapist.
Hall wrote in an e-mail: "I'm obligated to be skeptical that Cho's file just innocently and inexplicably showed up in the home files of the one mental health professional with the greatest exposure to liability for dropping the ball."
Miller told university officials that he did not know the whereabouts of the file when he was questioned about Cho shortly after the shootings, Virginia Tech spokesman Mark Owczarski has said.
Corinne Geller, a spokeswoman for the Virginia State Police, said investigators were in touch with Miller and his attorney Tuesday. She said the newly discovered file is short -- only eight to 10 pages long.
Family members of some of those killed and wounded by Cho have expressed outrage at the discovery.
Kaine said Thursday that he sympathizes with the reaction of family members still trying to understand the inexplicable violence of the shootings.
"Any new story about this case, even if there's no new information . . . brings up fresh memories and feelings, unresolved anger, confusion, bitterness, questions -- all of those things come up," he said. "That's all very natural."
Owczarski said Virginia Tech officials are eager to make public the contents of Cho's mental health records, which are once again stored at the Cook Counseling Center on campus. He said the state attorney general's office is taking the lead on contacting the Cho family. Once the records are cleared for release, Owczarski said, the college will post them on its Web site.
Staff writer Brigid Schulte and staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.