Cho Was Accused of Stalking in 2005
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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
Virginia Tech officials are giving more details today about the gunman who is responsible for this week's mass killing. University police acknowledge that Seung-hui Cho had been accused of harassing two female students.
WENDELL FLINCHUM: In November of 2005, Cho had made contact with - through phone calls and in person - with a female student. The student notified the Virginia Tech Police Department and officers responded. The student declined to press charges and referred to Cho's contact with her as annoying.
MONTAGNE: That's Chief Wendell Flinchum of the Virginia Tech Police speaking of Virginia Tech gunman Seung-hui Cho. NPR's Larry Abramson is covering this story and joins us on the line from Blacksburg, Virginia. And Larry, what did university police say about their contacts with Cho?
LARRY ABRAMSON: Well, basically, Renee, they indicated that the concerns were growing. There were two incidents where Cho was found to be harassing or irritating these female students via instant messages that he sent to them. But the police said there were no actual threats of violence in those messages. They simply - the students found it annoying and based on what some of his roommates have said, we know that they were basically - the attention was unwanted, that he didn't really - he didn't know many people, and so he was contacting women who didn't want to be contacted by him.
After this second contact, though, there was concern because a report came in that indicated he might be suicidal. And so he was committed briefly to a mental health facility around here. There was a detaining order against him. But then he was released afterwards. And that was really the end of the police department's contact with him until, of course, earlier this week when the shooting started.
MONTAGNE: And so that was it. I mean there was nothing done with these reports.
ABRAMSON: Well, the reports are on file, clearly. And - but you know, this says something, I suppose, about the mental health system in this country, is that - as many people have emphasized - until somebody is clearly a danger to himself or somebody else, there's relatively little the police can do.
Now, one of his teachers, as we know, Lucinda Roy was concerned enough about his writing in a creative writing class that she also went to the university and to the police department and pointed out that his writing was odd. But again, it was a creative writing course. People were encouraged to be creative, and you know, it was exceptionally odd, she said, but it wasn't unheard of, it wasn't a clear indication that he was going to do anything close to what he did on Monday. Now, that at least is the university's take on this, is that there just was no indication that he was capable of something like this.
MONTAGNE: We also heard this morning from the director of the university's counseling center, a Dr. Chris Flynn. Let's listen to a little of what he had to say.
CHRIS FLYNN: We certainly are always sensitive to the issue of potential violence. It is very difficult to predict when what someone perceives as stalking is stalking and then how it might translate into violence later.
MONTAGNE: Well, you know, as you just suggested, they thought it wouldn't but - it sounds like now Cho's behavior might have been somewhat extreme. Not extreme enough to merit more drastic action?
ABRAMSON: Right. Well, of course, reading history backwards, it always makes it a little bit easier. But of course it's difficult. The university and the police here, in order to get that first commitment order, had to go to a magistrate, and they can't just tell the magistrate we think this person is odd. They have to say that he's a danger to himself or others.
And you know, I know that in many cases those mental health facilities will only hold onto somebody for a limited period of time unless they have an indication that something more severe is going on. I think we can also say that the fact that this person had relatively little contact with the outside world, that he didn't have a lot of friends, means that there were fewer people to call the alarm, for somebody to say, hey, you know, you really look upset. And in this case he was just a very isolated person.
MONTAGNE: Just briefly, Larry, what is the mood like on the campus today? There was a little scare earlier.
ABRAMSON: There was a brief scare around a - a threat to the president of the university was phoned in. There was some talk that there might have been a bomb threat. But a lot of it was basically just nerves here, people were very tense. The police checked it out, and it amounted to nothing. But I think the few people who are on campus right now found it very unsettling once again to have this massive police presence.
MONTAGNE: Thanks very much. NPR's Larry Abramson in Blacksburg, Virginia.