Sometime after he killed two people in a Virginia university dormitory but before he slaughtered 30 more in a classroom building, Seung-Hui Cho mailed NBC News a large package including photographs and videos, boasting, “When the time came, I did it. I had to.”
Cho, 23, a senior English major at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, killed 32 people in the two attacks Monday morning before taking his own life.
Investigators said the material had little investigative value. That turned attention to NBC’s decision to broadcast the videos and publish some of Cho’s writings on MSNBC.com.
NBC News President Steve Capus said the package arrived in New York late Tuesday night and was delivered about 11 a.m. Wednesday to NBC headquarters, where, like all packages, it was screened through a metal detector before it was opened. The letter carrier noticed that it bore a return address from Blacksburg and alerted NBC security officers.
Cho’s name was not on the package; instead, the return address said it came from “A. Ishmael.” Investigators said Cho’s body was found Monday with the words “Ismael Ax” scrawled on his arm.
“I knew it was going to be a problem as soon as it landed in my hands,” said Mike Orlan, NBC News’ manager of print and distribution services. “We saw a number of pages inside the package and a loose disk.”
There was no indication why Cho chose NBC News to receive the package. The package included an 1,800-word manifesto-like statement in which Cho expresses rage, resentment and a desire to get even. The material is “hard to follow ... disturbing, very disturbing,” Capus said in an interview late Wednesday afternoon.
The material does not include any images of the shootings Monday, but it does contain vague references. And it mentions “martyrs like Eric and Dylan” — apparently a reference to Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the teenagers who killed 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., eight years ago this coming Friday.
The material is deeply angry, crying out against unspecified wrongs done to Cho in a diatribe laced with profanity.
“I didn’t have to do this. I could have left. I could have fled. But no, I will no longer run. It’s not for me. For my children, for my brothers and sisters that you f---, I did it for them,” Cho says on one of the videos.
“When the time came, I did it. I had to.”
Uneven but carefully produced materials
Cho apparently took time out of his rampage to send the package to the network. It bore a U.S. Postal Service stamp recording that it had been received at a Virginia post office at 9:01 a.m. ET Monday, about an hour and 45 minutes after Cho shot two people in the West Ambler Johnston residence hall on the Virginia Tech campus and shortly before he entered Norris Hall, where he killed 30 more people.
“We probably would have received the mail earlier had it not been that he had the wrong address and ZIP code,” Capus said.
Among the materials was a DVD with 27 QuickTime video files, totaling about 10 minutes, showing Cho talking directly to the camera. He does not name anyone specifically, but he mentions “hedonism” and Christianity, and he talks at length about his hatred of the wealthy.
“You had a hundred billion chances and ways to have avoided today,” Cho says. “But you decided to spill my blood. You forced me into a corner and gave me only one option. The decision was yours. Now you have blood on your hands that will never wash off.”
The production of the videos is uneven, with Cho’s voice so soft that at times it is hard to understand him. But they indicate that Cho had worked on the package for some time, because he not only “took the time to record the videos, but he also broke them down into snippets,” Capus said.
At times, Cho can be seen leaning forward to turn off the camera, suggesting that he shot the videos himself.
Karan Grewall, one of Cho’s roommates, said Wednesday night that Cho appeared to have shot the videos in their shared home.
“It looks exactly like our common areas where we hang out every day,” Grewall told MSNBC-TV’s Joe Scarborough. “I can’t be sure, but the walls look exactly like our suite.”
The package also includes 43 photographs. Cho looks like a normal, smiling college student in only the first two. In the rest, he presents a stern face; in 11, he aims handguns at the camera that are “consistent with what we’ve heard about the guns in this incident,” Capus said.
Other photographs show Cho holding a knife, and some show hollow-point bullets lined up on a table.
Little investigative value
“While there was some marginal value to the package we received, the fact of the matter is ... the package merely confirms what we already knew,” Col. Steven Flaherty, superintendent of Virginia State Police, the lead agency investigating the shootings, said in a brief statement Thursday.
Flaherty said he appreciated NBC’s cooperation with investigators, but he said he was “rather disappointed in the editorial decision to broadcast these disturbing images.”
“I’m sorry that you were all exposed to these images,” he said.
Capus said Thursday that he understood that many people would disagree with his decision, acknowledging that “there is no way to look at without being profoundly upset, and it is incredibly disturbing.”
“Ever since we heard the first reports about what happened on that campus, we all wanted to know — and I’m not sure we’ll ever fully understand — why this happened, but I do think this is as close as we’ll come to having a glimpse inside the mind of a killer,” he said on NBC’s TODAY program.
But Capus’ decision to broadcast some of the material on air and to publish it on MSNBC.com came under intense scrutiny.
An was inundated with more than 1,200 postings in less than 12 hours. Some of the response praising the network for bringing Cho’s mental illness graphically to light, but most castigated NBC for seeming to give Cho the attention he wanted.
“I find it offensive and irresponsible that the media is posting the final video of the VT killer,” said one post Thursday morning. “The publicity of this video and the infamy being granted to this individual will very likely inspire ‘copycat’ killers who want the notoriety and fame.”
In Blacksburg, where they were scheduled to be interviewed Thursday morning, Michael and Peggy Herbstritt, the parents of Jeremy Herbstritt, who died in Monday’s shootings, canceled an appearance on NBC’s show after the material was aired.
Capus said he understood that many people would disagree with his decision, acknowledging that “there is no way to look at without being profoundly upset, and it is incredibly disturbing.” But he said he had a responsibility as a journalist to bring it to light.
“Ever since we heard the first reports about what happened on that campus, we all wanted to know — and I’m not sure we’ll ever fully understand — why this happened, but I do think this is as close as we’ll come to having a glimpse inside the mind of a killer,” he said Thursday morning on TODAY.