Fruitless Lead Caused Fateful Delay

Police vehicles sit outside West Ambler Johnston Hall at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., Monday, April 16, 2007. The dormitory is where the shooting reportedly began in a multiple shooting incident Monday. AP/The Roanoke Times, Alan Kim

Virginia Tech police chased a fruitless lead in the early-morning murders of two students at a dormitory, halting school officials from sending out a warning about a possible gunman on the loose for two hours, according to search warrants and police statements, The New York Times reported Wednesday.

Just hours after the dorm killings, 30 people were ruthlessly shot dead by a student gunman, 23-year-old English major Cho Seung-Hui.

While investigating the murders of freshman Emily Jane Hilscher and Ryan Clark, a senior and resident adviser at Ambler Johnston Hall, police began searching for a man believed to be Hilscher's boyfriend, a student at nearby Radford University, the Times reported.

Police interviewed Karl Thornhill, who Hilscher's roommate said owned guns and had been together with her at a shooting range, according to the documents. As Thornhill was interviewed, police received reports of the murders at the Norris Hall classroom building, the paper said.

"We were looking at all angles when we got there, trying to determine who was in the room, why they were in the room, who was the last person who had seen him and many other areas," Virginia Tech Police Chief Wendell Flinchum told CBS' The Early Show Wednesday.

"We followed the evidence and the leads and witness information as
we got it," he said.

While Cho, who killed himself soon after the shootings, has been identified as the gunman at Norris Hall, police have stopped short of saying he was involved in the dorm murders. However, police have said one of the two guns found on Cho was used in both sets of killings.

Click here for an interactive gallery of the victims.

"We haven't been able to make the definite connection and put Cho at the scene at AJW," Flinchum, referring to the dorm, said at a news conference.

Thornhill remains an important witness to the dorm murders, the Times reported.

Students still on edge after the deadliest shooting in U.S. history got another scare Wednesday morning as police in SWAT gear with weapons drawn swarmed Burruss Hall, which houses the Virginia Tech president's office.

The threat of suspicious activity turned out to be unfounded, said Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said, and the building was reopened.

Virginia Tech President Charles Steger spent much of Tuesday defending the delay in warning students about the gunman. Some students said their first warning came more than two hours after the first shooting, in an e-mail at 9:26 a.m. By then the second shooting had begun.

"I can understand the anger and the rage," Steger told CBS' The Early Show Tuesday. But Steger added bluntly, "We believe we have acted appropriately."

Some students bitterly complained they got no warning from the university until an e-mail that arrived more than two hours after the first shots.

Read the e-mail alerts sent to students and staff
The e-mail had few details. It read: "A shooting incident occurred at West Amber Johnston earlier this morning. Police are on the scene and are investigating." The message warned students to be cautious and contact police about anything suspicious.

"We had no reason to suspect any other incident was going to occur," he said.

Steger emphasized that the university closed off the dorm after the first attack and decided to rely on e-mail and other electronic means to spread the word, but said that with 11,000 people driving onto campus first thing in the morning, it was difficult to get the word out.

He said that before the e-mail was sent, the university began telephoning resident advisers in the dorms and sent people to knock on doors. Students were warned to stay inside and away from the windows.

"We can only make decisions based on the information you had at the time. You don't have hours to reflect on it," Steger said.

The shooting began about 7:15 a.m. on the fourth floor of West Ambler Johnston, a high-rise coed dormitory.

Police were still investigating around 9:15 a.m., when a gunman wielding two handguns and carrying multiple clips of ammunition stormed Norris Hall, a classroom building a half-mile away on the other side of the 2,600-acre campus.

At least 15 people were hurt in the second attack. Many found themselves trapped after someone, apparently the shooter, chained and locked Norris Hall doors from the inside.

Students jumped from windows, and students and faculty carried away some of the wounded without waiting for ambulances to arrive.

SWAT team members with helmets, flak jackets and assault rifles swarmed over the campus. A student used his cell-phone camera to record the sound of bullets echoing through a stone building.
  • Sean Alfano

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