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Va. Tech Killer Ruled Mentally Ill by Court; Let Go After Hospital Visit

ABC | April 19, 2007 
NED POTTER and DAVID SCHOETZ

A court found that Virginia Tech killer Seung-Hui Cho was "mentally ill" and potentially dangerous. Then it let him go.

In December 2005 -- more than a year before Monday's mass shootings -- a district court in Montgomery County, Va., ruled that Cho presented "an imminent danger to self or others." That was the necessary criterion for a detention order, so that Cho, who had been accused of stalking by two female schoolmates, could be evaluated by a state doctor and ordered to undergo outpatient care.

According to the "Temporary Detention Order" obtained by ABC News, psychologist Roy Crouse found Cho's "affect is flat and mood is depressed.

"He denies suicidal ideation. He does not acknowledge symptoms of a thought disorder," Dr. Crouse wrote. "His insight and judgment are normal."

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That information came to light two days after Cho, a Virginia Tech senior, killed 32 people and then himself in a shooting rampage on the university's campus.


'An Imminent Danger to Himself'

The evaluation came from a psychiatric hospital near Virginia Tech, where Cho was taken by police in December 2005, after two female schoolmates said they received threatening messages from him, and police and school officials became concerned that he might be suicidal.

After Dr. Crouse's psychological evaluation of Cho, Special Justice Paul M. Barnett certified the finding, ordering followup treatment on an outpatient basis.

On the form, a box is checked, showing that Cho "presents an imminent danger to himself as a result of mental illness."

Immediately below it was another box that is not checked: "Presents an imminent danger to others as a result of mental illness."

Authorities said they had no contact with Cho between then and Monday's mass killings.


Package Sent to News Media

This afternoon, NBC received a package they believe was sent to the network by Cho. The package includes photographs of Cho holding firearms, as well as a DVD with video and a letter running several pages long.

One of the pictures shows Cho menacingly wielding a hammer. It bears a striking rememblance to a 2003 South Korean film, "Oldboy." The film, an international hit, explores themes of revenge and incest -- themes also apparent in plays Cho had written as a student. However, it is not known if Cho had seen "Oldboy."

The letter received by NBC News is described as angry and rambling---expressing hatred for rich people and elitists. It is described as very similar to the letter discovered in the Cho's dorm room. According to NBC news, it states "this did not have to happen."

The package was mailed at 9:01 a.m. Monday morning at a Blacksburg, Va post office, sources said. Cho allegedly put the package in the hands of a female clerk before leaving. The clerk told us a little while ago she remember seeing Cho and recalls having to look up the zipcode for New York City's Rockefeller Plaza.

It appears that the suspect took the time to mail a package in between his shooting spree---showing a degree of cold-blooded planning.


Sent to Psychiatric Hospital

Police obtained the 2005 detention order from a local magistrate after it was determined by a state-certified employee that Cho's apparent mental state met the threshold for the temporary detention order.

Under Virginia law, "A magistrate has the authority to issue a detention order upon a finding that a person is mentally ill and in need of hospitalization or treatment.


Wendell Flinchum, the chief of the Virginia Tech police department, said that it's common for university police to work with state-affiliated mental health facilities instead of on-campus counseling because it is easier to obtain a detention order.

"We normally go through access [appealing to the state's legal system for help] because they have the power to commit people if they need to be committed," Flinchum said at a press conference Wednesday morning.

Cho was taken to Carilion St. Albans Behavioral Health Center in Radford, Va., a private facility that can take 162 inpatients, according to court documents.

It's unclear whether Cho went to the hospital with police on his own or was taken there under protective custody, a possibility under the temporary detention order obtained by police.

One of the young women complained in November 2005 that Cho, then 21, was stalking her, but she declined to press legal charges against him. Police interviewed Cho for the first time and referred the case to the school's internal disciplinary board.

It's unclear whether any action was ever taken by the school, although Edward Spencer, a school vice president, said that it's not uncommon for a complaint never to reach a full hearing.

A second woman student, less than two weeks later, told authorities she received disturbing instant messages from Cho, and asked police to make sure there was "no further contact" from him.

Police spoke to Cho the next day. They say that shortly after, they received a call from an acquaintance of his, expressing concerns that he might be suicidal.

For a third time, police met with him. "Out of concern for Cho, officers asked him to speak to a counselor," Flinchum said. "He went voluntarily to the police department."

The student complaints that brought Cho to the attention of authorities came during the same time that creative writing professor Lucinda Roy went to administrators to voice her concern about violent themes in Cho's writing.

Roy told ABC News that Cho seemed "extraordinarily lonely -- the loneliest person I have ever met in my life."

While the school, citing privacy laws, did not conclusively say that school counselors had ever worked with Cho, they did say that a system for working with outside mental health agencies and local authorities is in place.

"Clearly, mental health professionals have a legal and moral responsibility," when a student presents a possible risk, said Christopher Flynn, head of the university's counseling center. "We have a duty to warn."

But Flynn also said that signs of trouble in Cho's behavior were not a clear indicator that action would follow. "It is very difficult to predict when what someone perceives as stalking, is stalking."


A Loner, Mysterious Even to His Roommates

Seung Cho was quiet -- so quiet that some classmates of his say they never heard his voice in three years. His roommates reported he was distant and private, eating by himself night after night, and watching wrestling on TV.

Cho's roommates say he obsessively downloaded music from the Internet. One of his favorites was the song "Shine," by Collective Soul, which he played over and over

He was early to bed and early to rise, normally in bed by 9 p.m., and sometimes up by 5:30 the next morning. His roommates tell ABC News they would see him in the morning putting in his contact lenses, taking prescription medication and applying acne medicine to his face.

"He pretty much never talked at all," said Joseph Aust, who shared a bedroom with him in a six-person dorm suite in Harper Hall. "I tried to make conversation with him earlier in the year. He gave one-word answers."

"He pretty much never looked me in the eye," Aust said.

In recent weeks his routine had changed. His roommates say he went to the campus gym at night, lifting weights to bulk up. He went for a haircut -- surprising them by coming back to the room with a military-style buzz cut.

Aust and another roommate, Karan Grewal, say they were aware that Cho had pursued women on campus. They said he also seemed to have an imaginary girlfriend, a supermodel named "Jelly."

Students say he seemed as quiet as ever in the days before Monday's rampage.

Trey Perkins, a student who saw Cho during the shooting spree, said it was unreal, "being that close to a monster."

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