The man behind the shooting spree at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, was a former professor in North Carolina who spent much of his time in the classroom talking about his obsession with Sin City and had “peculiar” ways of working, according to former students and one of his former graduate assistants.
Anthony Polito, 67, fatally shot three people and wounded a fourth Wednesday at UNLV, where he had applied for a teaching job in 2020 but was not hired, two senior law enforcement officials briefed on the case told NBC News.
Polito mailed letters to nearly two dozen various university personnel throughout the country before the attack, Las Vegas police said Thursday. The letters were sent without a return address, and a white powder substance — later said to be harmless — was found in a screening of one of the envelopes. The letter’s contents, police said, were unclear.
A specific motive for the shooting is also unclear, as are details about Polito’s life leading up to the deadly shooting.
But during Polito’s time at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, where he taught for over a decade, he was known as a popular — if eccentric — professor. A former student recalled that he pursued her in a way that made her uncomfortable, contacting her daily and buying her gifts, while another noted his fixation on student feedback. And Polito’s obsession with Las Vegas was something multiple people who knew him during that time recalled.
An obsession with Las Vegas
From 2001 to 2017, Polito worked at ECU as a tenured associate professor in the department of marketing and supply chain management, a university spokesperson said.
Paul Whittington, 33, of Garner, North Carolina, said he learned from a colleague Thursday that a former ECU professor was the alleged UNLV gunman.
“My immediate reaction was it had to be Tony Polito,” Whittington said. “I didn’t say that because I thought he was capable of anything like that. I didn’t say that because I thought that’s the kind of person that he was. I said that because my entire time in his class — he was obsessed with Las Vegas.”
Whittington said Polito was his professor during the 2014 spring semester in a class called introduction to operations management. After the first month of the class was spent speaking predominantly about the syllabus, the rest of the class was devoted mostly to Polito’s time in the desert and under the neon lights in Las Vegas.
“I think he went at the end of every semester, so at least twice a year. He would talk about all the hotels that he stayed in. All the restaurants that he would go to. All the clubs and shopping places that he would go to. Maybe some friends that he had made, people he went to visit when he was out there,” Whittington said.
“That was the class,” he added. “If you can imagine a college class where you just relive someone’s vacation, like, that was kind of his class. It was all we talked about from the start of the class to the end of it.”
Whittington called Polito’s class the “most unconventional” he has ever had.
Another former student, Tressa Grottini, 32, said Polito would crack jokes in class and “talk about going to Vegas all the time” when he taught her marketing around 2013.
“He would give us students, like, pointers on when to go, areas to stay, things like that,” Grottini said.
She said that Polito was “really even-tempered” and that she was “speechless” once he was identified as the gunman.
“If you met him, you would never think that would be something that he would have done,” Grottini said.
‘Peculiar’ ways of working
During Polito’s time at ECU, he was an “eccentric” but “super nice guy” who was rigid about organization and his email system, said T.J. Strickland, who worked for Polito as a graduate assistant for six months in the fall of 2011.
“He was peculiar about how things in his office should be,” he said. “If it wasn’t right, then we’re completely redoing it.”
Strickland, 37, said he was often tasked with printing assignments and tests for Polito’s students. If the task was not done perfectly, Strickland said, he would have to start over.
“If something was not stapled in the correct order, we’re going to throw it all away and reprint it and re-staple it,” he said.
In 2011, Strickland said, there was a shooting scare on campus, which prompted a lockdown, but the weapon threat ended up being an umbrella, not a gun. As a graduation gift, Polito gave Strickland an umbrella as a joke.
Strickland said he was “absolutely blown away” to hear Polito was behind the shooting spree in Las Vegas.
“He had a strange personality but was always super nice,” he said. “You really don’t know people sometimes and what they have going on. This is the perfect example of that.”
‘I felt preyed upon’
A woman who asked not to be identified by name because she feared losing her job said Thursday that she took his ECU course online during her senior year in 2012. The 32-year-old woman from Durham, North Carolina, said that what began as a mentor-mentee relationship escalated into his pursuing her in a way that made her uncomfortable.
“I felt preyed upon,” she said.
The woman said she ran into Polito in an elevator one day on campus and told him she was his student. From there, discussion turned to landing an internship, the woman said, noting that Polito helped her with her résumé.
“I initially brought my résumé and my cover letters and stuff, like, just for him to review, but it just slowly became apparent that it was not as innocent,” she said.
The woman said Polito would try to have contact with her every day for nearly the entire semester, through emails and texting. Polito, the woman said, also bought her gifts and, by the end of the semester, invited her to Las Vegas.
“I think that’s about when I was like ‘I have to cut this man off because he got the wrong idea,’” she said, noting that she was in her early 20s and that Polito not only was her professor but also decades older than her.
The woman never thought to report Polito because he was well-respected on campus and the entire ordeal struck her as odd.
“It was just so bizarre,” she said.
The woman said Polito never touched her inappropriately or acted out after she ended communication with him. She was surprised that Polito is accused of killing multiple people in a mass shooting.
Kimberly Chatelain-Flint, the property manager of the apartment complex Polito lived at while he was teaching at ECU, said Polito rented from her for a decade from 1995 to 2005 when he lived in Greenville.
Chatelain-Flint said she was “absolutely shocked” that Polito is accused of committing a mass shooting.
She said Polito used to come into the office a lot.
“Always in a professor-like way, coat, heavy cologne, and he would come and sit at my desk and talk to me,” she said. She described Polito as a “loner” who sometimes would get a little too personal, which made her uncomfortable.
“It felt like he needed someone to talk to. We had no issues with him,” she said.
Chatelain-Flint said Polito was obviously intelligent and kind.
“The last conversation that I had with him, he was going to Las Vegas, and he asked me if I could bring anything back. He brought me back a beach towel from the Mirage and a computer bag,” she said.
A popular professor
Polito’s popularity among students was also noteworthy from his time at ECU.
Whittington, the ECU student from 2014, said Polito was different from other instructors. He said Polito did not take attendance, give many tests or require a textbook. All interactions between Polito and his students were through his personal email and a personal website, instead of his designated college email or university portals.
Before the shooting, Polito’s reviews from students on ratemyprofessors.com were largely positive. On his personal website, Polito compiled years’ worth of anonymous comments from student surveys praising his instruction. Polito was fixated on the surveys and would dwell on the comments students submitted after they finished his course, even talking about them in class, Whittington said.
“He would actively try to guess or seek out who it was that was leaving the negative feedback. And he would make comments about that in class,” he said. “It was always uncomfortable to think about, especially knowing that I didn’t leave him a great review. I always wondered in the back of my head, ‘Was I talked about after his class?’ Did he point to my seat and say, ‘I know that guy who didn’t like me and he wrote a bad review — I remember his face’?”
Whittington said that in hindsight, he wonders whether Polito had a violent nature in him when he was his professor.
“It’s devastating,” Whittington said. “If he’s capable of that today, was he capable of that 10 years ago when I was in his class? … That’s something that’s been very unnerving to me and my family today.”