Va. Tech Gunman Talked to Three Separate Counselors

By Sue Lindsey | August 20, 2009 | 5:59 AM EDT
Roanoke, Va. (AP) - University counselors should have discussed and addressed the mental health troubles the Virginia Tech gunman told them he was having before the massacre, victims' relatives said.
The criticism comes after records revealed three therapists within three weeks indicated they saw no serious signs of violence in the student.
Documents released Wednesday contain previously unseen handwritten notes from counselors who spoke with Seung-Hui Cho -- two by phone and one in person -- in November and December 2005, a year and half before the shootings. The forms were filled out based on Cho's statements about the way he was feeling. He told them he was depressed and had feelings of anxiety, but had no homicidal or suicidal thoughts. On April 16, 2007, Cho killed 32 people and himself in the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
The forms don't contain evidence of any real trouble with Cho's mental state, though one counselor encouraged him to return, which he didn't.
Still, relatives said they showed he slipped through the campus counseling center cracks and that therapists didn't discuss his case.
"They definitely weren't paying attention, and that's what led to April 16th," said Suzanne Grimes, whose son Kevin was wounded.
"It just sounded like he was going through a McDonald's," said Michael Pohle, whose son Michael Pohle Jr. was killed. "It just looked like he was passed through from one person to another person and there was no collaboration going on."
Cho talked to two different therapists during 45-minute telephone triage sessions, then made one court-ordered 45-minute in-person visit with Sherry Lynch Conrad on Dec. 14, 2005. That meeting at Cook Counseling Center came after Cho was detained in a mental hospital overnight because he had expressed thoughts of suicide to people he lived with after a girl told him to stop leaving her messages.
However, Conrad, after speaking with him wrote: "He denies suicidal and/or homicidal thoughts. Said the comment he made was a joke. Says he has no reason to harm self and would never do it."
That was Cho's last contact with the counseling center. Conrad wrote that she gave him emergency contact numbers and encouraged him to return the next semester in January, but he didn't make an appointment that day, saying he didn't know his schedule.
The files first turned up July 16, when former center director Robert C. Miller found them in his home while preparing for lawsuits filed by victims' families, which name him as a defendant.
Robert Hall, attorney for the families who are suing, noted the records contained no mention of discussions former English Department Chairwoman Lucinda Roy had with Miller about Cho. She consulted the counseling center director when she was trying to tutor Cho that fall after his disturbing writings and bizarre behavior got him kicked out of class.
"It's like there are parallel universes," he said, one in which the faculty is concerned and tries to get help for a seriously disturbed student and another in which the school therapists appeared to know little about Cho's troubles.
Edward J. McNelis, an attorney for the three counselors, said he had advised them not to comment because they are named in lawsuits filed by two of the victims' families.
A telephone message left for Conrad was not returned.
Virginia Tech released the files after receiving permission from Cho's family, which was needed because of privacy laws.
"My mother, father and I all agree that it is the correct thing to do to release the newly discovered medical records of my brother," Cho's sister, Sun Cho, said in a letter authorizing the release.
University spokesman Mark Owczarski said with the release of the records the school was seeking to provide the victims' families "with as much information as is known about Cho's interactions with the mental health system."
Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine said in a statement that his administration remained committed to openness about the mass shootings.
"We will never fully comprehend what led Seung-Hui Cho to carry out his assault," Kaine said. "His actions were by nature inexplicable, and I don't expect the questions surrounding the tragedy will ever really end."
Roger O'Dell, whose son Derek O'Dell was injured, said he hoped the records could be helpful in altering treatment of troubled individuals.
"There are lessons to be learned," he said.
Associated Press writer Steve Szkotak in Richmond, Va., contributed to this report.
Three therapists within three weeks indicated they saw no serious signs of violence in the student.