Lawyer: Va. Tech gunman files taken inadvertently
RICHMOND, Va. — The former head of a Virginia Tech counseling center accidentally packed mental health files of student gunman Seung-Hui Cho along with personal documents when he left his job more than a year before Cho killed 32 people on campus, a lawyer said Thursday.
In a statement to The Associated Press, attorney Ed McNelis said his client, Dr. Robert Miller, placed Cho’s records in a box in February 2006. He said Miller opened it for the first time last week while searching for material that could be relevant to a lawsuit filed by families for two of the slain students in the nation’s worst mass shooting.
McNelis said Miller was surprised to find Cho’s records and he returned them to the center the next morning. The file has not yet been released to the public.
“Dr. Miller deeply regrets that his inadvertence has caused so much distress for the families of the victims as well as his former colleagues at Virginia Tech,” McNelis said. “Dr. Miller’s candor and diligence in returning these records to the Cook Counseling Center dispels any inference of ill intent.”
Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said the file contains about eight to 10 pages.
“We’re not talking volumes or anything,” she said. “It’s more like a stack of papers.”
Wednesday’s news that the records had been found at Miller’s home prompted questions from victims’ families and attorneys on why they were discovered there after eluding authorities for more than two years since the massacre, a state commission and an internal university search.
Suzanne Grimes, whose son Kevin Sterne was wounded, said she didn’t believe Miller’s story. She also questioned why it took the university six days to turn the records over to police after Miller’s attorney gave them to the school.
“I think criminal charges should be placed toward this doctor and toward Virginia Tech for holding them,” she said. “When someone shows up with something as huge as this, you don’t just say, ‘We’ll get to that next week.’”
State Police are investigating whether a crime was committed when the records were removed. If criminal charges are filed, they would be the first in the mass murders that happened on April 16, 2007.
Gov. Tim Kaine said the investigation would determine if Miller’s assertion was accurate.
“I think the other critical piece is, how could he remove those records? These are confidential records that, by my understanding, cannot be legally removed, certainly not by anybody who’s a former employee,” Kaine said.
State officials have said they would release Cho’s records publicly as soon as possible, either with consent from his estate or through a subpoena.
Robert T. Hall, attorney for the two suing families, said he didn’t expect the file to produce much new information. Nonetheless, he wondered why Miller even had them since he had never seen Cho as a patient.
“I’m a professional skeptic,” Hall said in a telephone interview. “Why was it on his desk?”
Cho was a senior when he killed two people in a dormitory and 30 more in a classroom building before committing suicide. He had only three encounters with the counseling center over his four years at the Blacksburg school. Officials have said he was triaged twice over the phone and had one court-ordered counseling session in person.
Wounded victims and the families of the slain waited for details from the file and a clear reason for the lapse in finding it.
“I’m glad that it wasn’t with malicious intent and that he did return it when he realized the grave error that he made,” said Colin Goddard, who was shot four times by Cho but survived. “I don’t know how professional it is, but the guy’s human.”
Goddard said he was anxious to see what the files contain.
“I would imagine that there would be some things we would have liked to have known two years ago,” he said.
Most families of those killed and injured agreed last year not to sue in exchange for an $11 million state settlement. Their attorney, Peter Grenier, said the records discovery would not affect the agreement because his case focused on the university’s response to the shootings.
The lawsuits on behalf of slain students Julia Pryde and Erin Peterson are seeking damages of $10 million, but their parents have said they decided to sue in order to learn more details about the shootings.
Even after the records become public, Kaine said it wouldn’t ease all the pain the families feel.
“I don’t think all of the questions about this will ever go away,” he said. “The motivations for this young man (Cho) will cause confusion and sadness forever, and there’s never going to be an answer to this that will just wind it up and finish it because it’s so inexplicable.”
Associated Press Writers Sue Lindsey in Roanoke and Dena Potter and Hank Kurz Jr. in Richmond contributed to this report.
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