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Student Wrote About Death and Spoke in Whispers, But No One Imagined What Cho Seung Hui Would Do

By Ian Shapira and Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 18, 2007

BLACKSBURG, Va., April 17 -- They met across the professor's desk. One on one. The chairman of the English department and the silent, brooding student who never took his sunglasses off.

He had so upset other instructors that Virginia Tech officials asked whether the professor wanted protection. Lucinda Roy declined. She thought Cho Seung Hui exuded loneliness, and she volunteered to teach him by herself, to spare her colleagues. The subject of the class was poetry.

Roy, other officials, investigators, acquaintances and neighbors helped fill in a dark portrait Tuesday of the bespectacled young South Korean citizen who had sought bizarre expression in literature and then massacred 32 fellow students and teachers here Monday in the worst shooting rampage in U.S. history. As police closed in, he shot himself and was found on the floor of a classroom building with his weapons nearby.

Cho, of Centreville, the son of immigrants who run a dry cleaning business and the brother of a State Department contractor who graduated from Princeton, was described by those who encountered him over the years as at times angry, menacing, disturbed and so depressed that he seemed near tears.

He often spoke in a whisper, if at all, refused to open up to teachers and classmates, and kept himself locked behind a facade of a hat, sunglasses and silence.

Authorities still are not sure what set him off and what propelled him Monday as he stalked the halls and classrooms of Norris Hall with two semiautomatic pistols, chaining doors closed and murdering and maiming as he went.

Authorities found two three-page notes in his dorm room after the shootings. They weren't suicide notes and provided no clue about why he did what he did. Instead, they were expletive-filled rants against the rich and privileged, even naming people who he thought had kept him down, federal and state law enforcement sources said. Two government officials said he had been treated for mental health problems.

Police also are uncertain why Cho stopped and shot himself to death in Norris Hall, where most of his victims lay scattered around him.

Any comprehension of what happened seemed to come only in hindsight.

Cho (whose full name is pronounced joh sung-wee) appears first to have alarmed the noted Virginia Tech poet Nikki Giovanni in a creative writing class in fall 2005, Giovanni said.

Cho took pictures of fellow students during class and wrote about death, she said in an interview. "Kids write about murder and suicide all the time. But there was something that made all of us pay attention closely. None of us were comfortable with that," she said.

The students once recited their poems in class. "It was like, 'What are you trying to say here?' It was more sinister," she said.

Days later, seven of Giovanni's 70 or so students showed up for a class. She asked them why the others didn't show up and was told that they were afraid of Cho.

"Once I realized my class was scared, I knew I had to do something," she said.

She approached Cho and told him that he needed to change the type of poems he was writing or drop her class. Giovanni said Cho declined to leave and said, "You can't make me."

Giovanni said she appealed to Roy, who then taught Cho one-on-one. Roy, 51, said in a telephone interview that she also urged Cho to seek counseling and told him that she would walk to the counseling center with him. He said he would think about it.

Roy said she warned school officials. "I was determined that people were going to take notice," Roy said. "I felt I'd said to so many people, 'Please, will you look at this young man?' "

Roy, now the alumni distinguished professor of English and co-director of the creative writing program, said university officials were responsive and sympathetic to her warnings but indicated that because Cho had made no direct threats, there was little they could do.

"I don't want to be accusatory or blaming other people," Roy said. "I do just want to say, though, it's such a shame if people don't listen very carefully and if the law constricts them so that they can't do what is best for the student."

Cho wrote poems, a novel and two plays, acquaintances and officials said, in addition to the rambling multipage "manifesto" directed against the rich, the spoiled and the world in general, which police found in his dorm room.

Paul Kim, a senior English major, said Cho was so withdrawn on campus that he did not know "we had a Korean person who was in the English department and was male until I met him in class."

"He never spoke a word," Kim said. "Even when the professor asked questions, he never spoke. He constantly looked physically and emotionally down, like he was depressed. I had a strong feeling to talk to him on the first day of class, but I didn't get to talk to him because he sat right beside the door, and as soon as class was over, he left."

For Kim, one detail stood out. The classroom was rectangular. The class was split in half, with one half facing the other. "I always sat directly across, looking directly at him," Kim said. "He never looked up."

Kim said he might have seen signs of Cho's deterioration: He disappeared from class.

"For the past month, he stopped coming," Kim said.

Charlotte Peterson, a former Virginia Tech student, said she shared a British literature class with Cho in 2005. On the first day, when the instructor asked students to write their names on a sheet of paper and hand it up, Cho wrote a question mark.

"Even the teacher laughed at him," Peterson said. "Nobody understood him."

Brooke Kistner, 22, a senior English major from Chester, Va., said she had three classes with Cho.

"He would keep his headphones on a lot," she said. "I remember one instance where the teacher had addressed a question to him and he really just stared off into space. He didn't even recall acknowledging that she was talking to him. We were like, 'What are you doing?' The teacher said, 'Will you please see me after class?' and he still didn't even acknowledge her. It was an awkward silence, and then she went back to lecturing."

In his Centreville community, residents recalled him as a strange young man.

"He just seemed odd," said Greg Kearns, a neighbor who tried unsuccessfully now and then to strike up conversations with Cho.

Kearns recalled seeing Cho in front of his parents' townhouse a few years ago. Kearns was walking his dog. When he said hello, Cho turned his head and shoulders away. "It was like he was carrying on a conversation with himself," Kearns said.

Abdul Shash, who lives next door to the Chos, said Cho never seemed to have any friends over the years.

"If you walk and you come close to him, he'd walk away," Shash said. "I have kids, and he never talked to them."

Shash described Cho's parents as quiet, modest and hardworking people who seemed devoted to helping their son. During his years at Virginia Tech, his parents regularly shuttled him to and from Blacksburg, more than four hours each way.

"Nobody knows him really," Shash said. "He's always quiet. When I talk to him, there's no response."

Cho graduated from Westfield High School in Chantilly in 2003. He turned 23 on Jan. 18 and had lived as a legal permanent resident since entering the United States through Detroit on Sept. 2, 1992, when he was 8 years old, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Cho held a green card through his parents, and he renewed it Oct. 27, 2003, according to Homeland Security. He listed his residence as Centreville.

Cho's sister, Sun Cho, graduated from Princeton University with a degree in economics in 2004 after she completed summer internships with the State Department in Washington and Bangkok.

A State Department spokesman said Sun Cho works as a contractor specializing in personnel matters.

Investigators said Cho procured one of the guns he used in the rampage, a Walther .22-caliber pistol, Feb. 9 from a pawnshop on Main Street in Blacksburg near the Virginia Tech campus.

On March 16, he bought the second gun, a 9mm Glock 19, from Roanoke Firearms, a gun shop on Cove Road in Roanoke.

He used his driver's license as identification and had no problem buying the guns because he was complying with Virginia law, which permits the purchase of one gun a month, investigators said.

The Glock was used in two shootings, first in a dormitory and then in Norris Hall more than 2 1/2 hours later, officials said. A surveillance tape, which has now been watched by federal agents, shows Cho buying the Glock, sources said. Both guns are semiautomatic, which means that one round is fired for every finger pull.

Cho reloaded several times, using 15-round magazines for the Glock and 10-round magazines for the Walther, investigators said, adding that he had the cryptic words "Ismale Ax" tattooed on one arm. Although there are many theories, sources said, no one knows what it means.

As the university mourned Tuesday and the identities of the dead were made public, more details of Monday's tragedy emerged.

One of Cho's suitemates in Harper Hall said the killer began the day looking like he had every other day since moving in. Karan Grewal said Cho's face was blank and expressionless. "He didn't have a look of disgust or anger," Grewal said. "He never did. There was always just one look on his face."

In August, when Grewal, Cho and four others moved in, Cho's suitemates tried to talk to him but never got a word in return.

"My impression was that he's shy," said Grewal, 21, a senior accounting major who lived in a room across the hall. "He never looked anyone in the eye. If you even say hi, he'd keep walking straight past you."

The six students lived two to a room in a three-bedroom, one-bathroom suite. The others never saw Cho with any women or friends. He would turn his head away to avoid conversation. His room had the typical college dorm look, strewn with cereal boxes and clothes, Grewal said.

Recently, Cho had started going to the gym. Other than that, his suitemate had been behaving exactly as he always had.

"He had that blank expression," Grewal said, "nothing else."

Ruane reported from Washington.

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