Before UNLV shooting, former students say gunman fixated on Las Vegas

A police officer talks with students near the Student Union, background,
A police officer talks with students near the Student Union a day after three people died and one person was injured in a mass shooting at the UNLV campus.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Even before their former business professor carried out a mass shooting at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, old students of Anthony Polito say his classes were not something they would forget.

There were the regular reminders to his students at East Carolina University to leave him flattering reviews on — and the disparaging of past “disgruntled” students who had left less-than-glowing ones. He was one of the few professors they knew who taught in a suit and cufflinks and the only one who smoked an e-cigarette — once wordlessly blowing the vapor on a bewildered student up front.

And what now feels like the most significant memory from those days: a deep love of — some say obsession with — Las Vegas.

Students at the Greenville, N.C., university say when Polito, 67, would boot up his computer screen, there was always a Las Vegas-themed backdrop. He would tell them about his upcoming bookings at The Wynn, a luxury hotel, and the steak from room service he planned to order upon arrival. Some say they would have entire classes dedicated exclusively to his weekend excursions.


“All the lectures just became based around Las Vegas,” said Paul Whittington, who took Polito’s class on supply chain management in 2014. “That’s what the class periods were. It was slideshows of ‘These are places that I’d stayed. These are things that I’ve done. These are clubs that I’ve been to.’”

But Polito would struggle transitioning from eager tourist to permanent Sin City resident. After moving to Vegas from North Carolina, law enforcement said Polito had difficulty finding a job and was at risk of losing his home in the city’s suburbs.

On Wednesday, with an eviction notice pinned to his front door, Polito walked onto the campus of UNLV — one of several Nevada schools that law enforcement say had rejected him for a job — with a 9mm handgun. In the span of a few minutes, he fatally shot three faculty members in the business school, identified as Cha-Jan “Jerry” Chang, 64, Patricia Navarro-Velez, 39, and Naoko Takemaru, 69. A visiting professor was critically injured. Law enforcement said Polito had maintained a list of targets of both UNLV and East Carolina University staff.

Greg Gibson, a neighbor of the ULNV gunman, in his doorway
Greg Gibson, a neighbor of the UNLV gunman, said Anthony Polito stuck out at the “crummy” apartment complex in the suburbs of Las Vegas. Gibson saw Polito the morning of the shooting, pacing and smoking a cigarette in the parking lot. “He seemed agitated. That’s why I noticed him,” Gibson said.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Days after the shooting, law enforcement are still unpacking how a former professor so infatuated with Las Vegas that he made it part of his lectures had become the latest gunman to target its residents in a mass shooting.

Former students of Polito say they were shocked when national outlets began broadcasting the picture of their professor, with his gelled-back hair and signature crisp white shirt, above a banner announcing multiple gunshot deaths at a college campus.

“I recognized his face immediately. My mouth just dropped, and my heart just sank,” said Erick Smithwick, who took one of Polito’s courses around 2006 and remembered him as one of his more passionate and approachable professors. “I still don’t believe it.”


But one fact in the reports that surprised no one he’d taught: Sometime after they had finished school, Polito had left too and moved to the city he couldn’t get enough of.

“If you spend every day of your career just talking about it, why wouldn’t you move out there?” said Whittington, 33.

According to his LinkedIn page, Polito left East Carolina University around 2017 after more than a decade-and-a half with the school. On his personal website, he described himself as a “semi-retired” professor who had made two dozen trips to Las Vegas and had “collected more information and trivia about Vegas than probably anyone in this state east of I-95” thanks to his “steel trap mind.”

“I don’t gamble that much, but there is plenty to do there, that’s for sure !!” he wrote.

Polito's apartment in Henderson, Nevada
After moving to Las Vegas, Polito moved to the Promontory Point Apartments in Henderson, about eight miles from the UNLV campus. On Thursday, the day after the shooting, the police staked out the apartment.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Upon arriving in the city, Polito landed at an apartment complex in Henderson, a far cry from the Strip he loved where neighbors said he seemed isolated and aloof.

“He was a little out of place for these crummy apartments,” said Greg Gibson, a neighbor who saw Polito the morning of the shooting, smoking and pacing in the parking lot.

While former students say Polito was known to “talk your ear off,” his neighbors found him decidedly uninterested in small talk. Most just knew him as the hermit-like guy with a briefcase and a vanity plate that read “KAPEESH,” a quirk that led some to refer to him as “mafia dude.”

On a list posted on his website titled ‘My Twenty-One Cars !!,’ Polito wrote that he wanted a plate that emphasized “persistence/determination.”

“I considered SENSEI, the Japanese term for teacher… but it was already taken,” he wrote on the list detailing every car he’d ever owned. “‘Kapeesh’ seemed to go with a big black car driven by a New York Italian.”

At the end of another week of fruitless job searching, Polito would often end up at the Village Pub, a 24-hour bar a few blocks from his house. Staff say he’d spend Friday nights alone nursing a beer or an iced tea and lamenting the difficult time he was having getting hired.

Sometimes, he was still there when Gina Stapley, the bar manger, showed up for her 7 a.m. shift. She said Polito would tell her his resume was not getting the warm reception he hoped for — despite him being “highly scholared.”

“I’m like, what’s taking so long?” she said. “I thought he was bull—. I didn’t really think he was a college professor.”

Manager Gina Stapley at the Village Pub
Village Pub Manager Gina Stapley, 45, said Polito used to come into her bar every Friday night up until about a year ago and would often unload about the difficulty he was having finding a job in Las Vegas. “He was just a very strange individual,” she said.
(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

Las Vegas Metropolitan Sheriff Kevin McMahill told reporters Thursday that Polito had applied “numerous times” for a job with Nevada schools and been rejected from each one.

Former students said they thought that repeated dead ends may have been especially bitter for Polito, who always seemed to have so much of his identity tied up with the city.

“I mean he loved Vegas,” said Robert Martin, a 38-year-old accountant who took Polito’s marketing class in 2011 and remembers him talking fondly about his stays at the Wynn. “Maybe he felt like this is where I belong. I love this town. Now I get to teach here then somebody took it away from me — that kind of thing.”