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‘Target list,’ ammo and conspiracy theories: Authorities reveal details on gunman who killed 3 UNLV faculty members

Dec 8, 2023, 7:55 PM

(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.

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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.

On Friday, the county coroner identified the third victim as associate professor Naoko Takemaru.

“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.

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Takemaru taught Japanese studies, according to her faculty page on UNLV’s website.

While she faced multiple challenges and physical disabilities, Takemaru was described by her colleague, associate professor Margaret Harp, as a “triple-threat artist.” She was a professional concert pianist, embroidered and enjoyed making homemade chocolates, Harp said during a news conference Friday.

Takemaru was also a cat lover who covered her office in photos, drawings and calendars of cats.

“Naoko was frail physically, however, she was lionhearted in kindness, lionhearted in generosity, lionhearted in humanity, the point of liberal arts, and I have no doubt she was lionhearted in her final moments on earth,” Harp said.

UNLV will forego in-person finals in the wake of the fatal shooting but will hold winter commencement as planned.

“Given the physical and emotional trauma that the university community has endured, and because of the impact to campus facilities, we have decided that faculty and staff should continue to work remotely through the end of the calendar year,” university President Keith Whitfield said in a post.

Whitfield said the university will “provide flexibility for faculty and instructors – as well as students – to bring this semester to a positive end” by ending the semester with the grades earned through work completed before the shooting. Some professors may elect to hold optional online finals or arrange for take-home projects.

Winter commencement will proceed in person as planned on December 19 for undergraduates and December 20 for those receiving master’s and doctoral degrees.

 

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.

About three dozen 911 calls were released from the shooting, most from those in the Lee Business School where the shooting took place. Others were placed by people fleeing the scene as well as distraught family members relaying information sent via text by loved ones at the scene. Many callers reported hearing “a lot of shots,” and then “screaming.”

The calls included one from a woman who was crying and hiding under the desk in her office as she described hearing gunshots followed by screaming.

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.”

 

Officers who shot suspect identified, hailed as heroes

 

The two University Police Services officers who engaged in gunfire with the suspect were hailed as heroes by Chief Adam Garcia during a news conference Friday.

They were identified as Detective Nathanial Drum and Officer Damian Garcia, Chief Garcia said.

Drum has worked for the department since 2017 and is assigned to the detective bureau, while Garcia has worked for the agency since 2018 and is assigned to the special events division as well as the detective bureau, the chief added.

“In a word, these two officers are heroes. They kept the worst from becoming a bloodbath,” Garcia said. “The collective response in actions of our other initial responding officers, UPD, Metro or many regional agencies no doubt saved lives as well. Their swift response and exceptional courage were pivotal in neutralizing this threat and undoubtedly prevented further harm for our community.”

The two men have been put on administrative leave pending an investigation, as is standard procedure during officer-involved shootings, Garcia said.

CNN’s Cheri Mossburg, Jillian Sykes, Andy Rose and Evan Perez contributed to this report.


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‘Target list,’ ammo and conspiracy theories: Authorities reveal details on gunman who killed 3 UNLV faculty members