Killer's Family Thrust From Anonymity Into a Whirl of Curiosity

At an international gathering of reporters in the Cho family's Centreville neighborhood, not much is learned about the Virginia Tech shootings.
At an international gathering of reporters in the Cho family's Centreville neighborhood, not much is learned about the Virginia Tech shootings. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Marc Fisher
Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The police arrived a little before 11 on the night of the shootings. They piled into the Cho family's townhouse on Truitt Farm Drive in Centreville, gathered up several boxes of materials and left. The house has been sealed off ever since, the family, immigrants from South Korea who run a dry cleaning business, secreted away from the mob of fact-hunters.

There were more than 50 of us at one point yesterday, sniffing around on the block where Cho Seung Hui lived with his parents and sister. Camera crews, reporters, curious neighbors, police, all milling about, as if someone might emerge who could explain why 32 people are dead at Virginia Tech.

The only concrete bit of evidence anybody found was a rifle shell that a TV cameraman discovered in a parking space in front of the Cho townhouse. A Fairfax County police officer said it might have belonged to the shooter, or it might not.

Neighbors said Cho was a silent guy who didn't respond to routine greetings. Of course, any of us could say that about many, if not most, of our neighbors.

The mailman said he'd never delivered anything unusual to the house -- "no gun catalogues, I'd remember that," said Rod Wells, who seemed to enjoy his moment in the spotlight so well that he returned to be interviewed twice more in two hours. Quickly now, what might your mail carrier say when you get your moment in the news?

The front of the house -- a three-bedroom, attached unit assessed by Fairfax County at $404,510 -- was sealed up, blinds and curtains drawn tight. Squeezed into the postage-stamp back yard, two freshly mulched vegetable plots sprouted the first leaves of spring.

Nice family -- lots of smiles, very polite. Quiet street. Nothing ever happens here. One after another, the neighbors in the Sully Station II development dredged their memories and came up with the thinnest of passing moments.

"People come and go," said Doris Main, who has lived across from the Chos since the family arrived in 1999. "We're the only people home because we're the token senior citizens on the street. Everybody works. The only time you get to know people is when there's a big snowstorm."

It was after a snowstorm that Linda Liba, who also lives opposite the Cho family, came to appreciate the kindness of Cho Hyang, the shooter's mother. Mrs. Cho noticed that Liba was pregnant and urged her not to exert herself to clear the snow. Instead, Mrs. Cho had her husband brush off Liba's car.

"The family is very good," said Liba, 22, who is from Guatemala. She used to talk mainly to the Chos' daughter, a 2004 graduate of Princeton, who accompanied her parents as they left for work each morning at 7.

On Truitt Farm Drive, nobody knew anything about Seung Hui's writings, so lurid that his English professor referred him to counseling. Nobody knew about his guns. Nobody knew who his friends were, or what he was interested in, or what made him laugh.

No matter: The machinery of information grinds on. A TV reporter, on the phone from the sidewalk in front of the Cho house, informed his producer of his plans: "I don't care what they're going to do for visuals, I'm just going to blather my head off." His cameraman set up the shot.

By midafternoon, police had shooed the visitors away; the homeowners association decided it had had enough. Eight TV transmission trucks drove back up Sully Park Drive, toward streets so new they're not on many maps.

When police arrived Monday night, six cars zipping into the narrow lane, the neighbors had no idea that the Chos were in any way connected to the Virginia Tech shootings. The neighbors said they watched from behind the living room curtains or from their upstairs bedrooms or from a door opened just a crack.

Nobody went outside to have a look or ask a question.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company