A University of Maryland honor student who warned on websites he was going to "kill enough people to make it to national news" was arrested after several people reported the online messages to police, helping to thwart a threatened campus rampage, authorities said.
While the threat was dismissed by some online as harmless, a former student who used to work with campus police took it seriously and first called authorities Saturday night. By Sunday morning, police had set up surveillance on Alexander Song and arrested him on campus.
"The best security we have is us looking after each other," said university police chief David Mitchell. "And that's exactly what happened. Three people saw online postings and called us."
The 19-year-old Song was shaking and crying when he was taken into custody and appeared "emotionally distraught," Mitchell said. He has admitted to feeling stressed out, though police say they're still not sure what made him so upset.
Song was not armed at the time of his arrest, and police did not find any weapons in his dorm room or his parent's home in Fulton, Md. Students and professors who knew him said there was no indication he was capable of violence and called him good-natured and harmless.
Song was taken to a psychiatric hospital for an evaluation and immediately suspended from the school. He faces a misdemeanor charge of disturbing school activities. A police spokesman has said he doesn't know if he had an attorney and a working phone number for his parents could not immediately be found.
The initial threat was posted on Reddit.com, a user-generated news website. Two people who were chatting with Song on Omegle.com, a website that enables one-on-one anonymous chats, reported additional threatening posts on Sunday morning. The comments included, "I'm thinking about going on a shooting rampage all around campus until the police come and kill me" and a warning to "stay away from the Mall," apparently alluding to a central green on campus.
In one of the chats, a person told Song the police would be called unless he admitted immediately that he was joking around, the police chief said.
Song responded with words to the effect of, "LOL. Go ahead. You don't even know what campus I'm talking about," the chief said.
Capt. Marc Limansky, a police spokesman, said Song posted on Saturday night that the shooting would take place "tomorrow," but a post found later in the investigation suggested that the rampage was actually planned for Monday.
Detectives traced the messages to a computer used by Song and arrested him on campus after setting up surveillance to track his movements. Though the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre focused attention on how quickly universities alert students and staff to campus emergencies, police say there was no need to activate the emergency alert system in this case because they had Song under surveillance and didn't want to tip him off to the investigation.
"The last thing we wanted to do was alert the entire campus, including Mr. Song, that we were looking for him and therefore create a (new) threat," he said.
This was not Song's first interaction with police. He was questioned at his dormitory about a week ago by officers responding to a complaint of a person shouting, Mitchell said.
"He told us he was feeling a little stressed out. There was nothing that would lead us to believe that he was a threat to himself or others," Mitchell said.
It's unclear exactly what was stressing Song out, police said.
Song was a member of a campus research program for select honor students who explore how science and technology relates with society, according to the university's website. The Gemstone Program, part of Maryland's Honors College, lists Song as scheduled to graduate in 2014.
He was one of the leaders of a sophomore student research team, Be Pure, that was studying the purification of methane gas, said James Wallace, a mechanical engineering professor and director of the Gemstone Program.
A fellow team member, Yoon Shin, told The Associated Press that Song was "one of the most harmless people I know, and he would not hurt anyone. Another student, Anjana Sekaran, said she had known Song since last year "and he is a very intelligent, good-natured individual. He would never hurt anyone."
Professor Steven Hutcheson, the team's advisor, said Song had once been one of the more vocal members of the team and had been excited and motivated by the project. Hutcheson said Song had recently appeared quieter, but that there was no indication he was unhappy or capable of violence.
"I wish there had been something because I would have loved to have helped him," Hutcheson said.
The threats unnerved freshman Cristian Salgado, who said he was glad police took it seriously even if the rampage might not have materialized.
"You don't really keep your guard up that much because it's such a safe campus," Salgado said.
Associated Press writer Jessica Gresko contributed to this report.
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