‘Target list,’ ammo and conspiracy theories: Authorities reveal details on UNLV gunman
Dec 8, 2023, 10:15 AM
(CNN) — The 67-year-old career college professor who fatally shot three faculty members this week at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, kept a “target list” of faculty at the school and elsewhere, said authorities searching for a motive.
Investigators found ammunition at Anthony Polito’s apartment, along with an eviction notice, and have identified nearly two dozen letters he mailed in the hours leading up to the shooting to university personnel across the country, they said. He also was fascinated by conspiracy theories and Las Vegas, according to his online writings and former students.
Polito was shot and killed by police Wednesday after his attack near the site of the deadliest mass shooting in US history, when a sniper in 2017 killed more than 50 people and injured hundreds at an outdoor concert on the Las Vegas Strip. Wednesday’s violence marked the 80th school shooting in the US this year, including 29 at university or college campuses, a CNN analysis shows.
Polito, armed with a 9 mm pistol and nine loaded magazines, also injured a visiting male professor in a building that is part of the business school. That man was being treated for life-threatening injuries, Las Vegas Sheriff Kevin McMahill said Thursday.
None of the faculty members shot Wednesday were on Polito’s “target list,” which included “people he was seeking on the university campus as well as faculty from the Eastern Carolina University,” McMahill said. The sheriff did not explain what led investigators to believe it was a list of targets or where they found the document.
It remained unclear why Polito, who lived in the Las Vegas suburb of Henderson, targeted UNLV or if he had any connection to the school. He had unsuccessfully applied to several higher education jobs in Nevada and appeared to be struggling financially, McMahill said.
An eviction notice was found on the door of Polito’s Henderson apartment, the sheriff said. And in the hours leading up to the shooting, Polito had mailed 22 letters to university personnel across the country with no return address, he said. At least some of the envelopes had a harmless white powder in them, Las Vegas police said Thursday evening more details about the letters’ contents weren’t immediately released.
Detectives are asking people in academia who get a letter with no return address to “proceed with caution,” McMahill said.
UNLV mourns beloved faculty
The shooting, just days before the start of final exams, was “the most difficult day in the history of our university,” UNLV president Keith Whitfield said.
Killed were business school professors Patricia Navarro-Velez and Cha-Jan “Jerry” Chang, Whitfield said Thursday in a letter to the school community. The name of the third slain faculty member will be released after that person’s relatives are notified, he said.
“I won’t sugarcoat it. We are all hurting right now,” Whitfield said. “But it’s in these trying times that we need to lean on one another for support.
“Words are still hard to come by as we’re only beginning to process the grief, loss, anger, and fear associated with Wednesday’s tragic campus shooting that took the lives of three of our cherished faculty members,” Whitfield wrote.
Navarro-Velez, 39, an assistant professor of accounting, had been teaching at the school for almost five years and had “devoted her career to educating the next generation of accountants,” Whitfield said.
Chang, 64, had been teaching UNLV’s business school students for more than 20 years on “management information systems,” Whitfield said.
The gunman: Ammunition and conspiracies
Investigators found several computers and hard drive components while searching Polito’s apartment and are reviewing the devices and Polito’s social media for a possible motive, the sheriff said.
Authorities also found ammunition like cartridges found at the scene of the shooting, as well as a box matching the gun police believe Polito used, McMahill said. On a chair, investigators also discovered a document similar to a “last will and testament,” he said.
Polito’s online writings show interest in the gambling capital and in conspiracy theories. His personal website lists a section devoted to “Powerful Organizations Bent on Global Domination!” and includes links to common conspiracy theory fodder like Freemasonry, the Trilateral Commission and “The Rothchild (sic) Family.” Billionaire hedge fund manager George Soros, a common target for antisemitic conspiracy theories, is listed as one of the “Great Minds of the Twentieth Century,” alongside Albert Einstein.
Meanwhile, three of Polito’s former students say he spoke frequently about Las Vegas and visited the city as much as he could while teaching in other states. His website notes he had made “more than two dozen trips to Vegas over the last fifteen years,” although it was not clear when the statement was posted.
Polito had an unorthodox teaching style and often opened classes with Las Vegas stories, said Jonathan Peralta, who was in one of Polito’s classes at Eastern Carolina University in 2013 or 2014.
“This was surprising,” Peralta told CNN of the UNLV shooting. “The Vegas connection is what makes it so crazy because he would talk about Vegas so much.”
Polito worked at Eastern Carolina University’s college of business from 2001 until he resigned in 2017, when he was a tenured associate professor, a college spokesperson told CNN. He had ties to Nevada’s Roseman University from October 2018 to June 2022, attending the school and working as an adjunct professor, a school spokesperson said. He also had worked in academia in Georgia, his now-removed LinkedIn page showed.
How the shooting unfolded
Polito got to the university just before 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, just minutes before the shooting erupted in Beam Hall as professors were preparing their classes for upcoming tests and students outdoors were enjoying games, food and other activities.
Police began getting 911 calls around 11:45 a.m., prompting officers to rush to the campus, McMahill said.
Officers entered Beam Hall – which lacks interior cameras, the sheriff said – with the first officer arriving within 78 seconds of the first 911 call, said Adam Garcia of University Police Services.
Polito made his way through multiple floors of the building, where Navarro-Velez worked on the fourth floor and Chang on the third floor, the sheriff said.
The gunman left the building around 11:55 a.m., he said.
University police outdoors confronted Polito, who was shot repeatedly and collapsed, was arrested and died there, McMahill said.
“Officers then assembled action teams and began a systematic search for additional suspects and victims,” he said. “Those teams went through multiple buildings and multiple floors. Many times we had to force entry into rooms where students and faculty were sheltering in place.”
CNN’s Cheri Mossburg, Jillian Sykes, Andy Rose and Evan Perez contributed to this report.
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