By Amy Gardner and David Cho
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, May 6, 2007
Hyang In Cho was so desperate to find help for her silent, angry son that she sought out some members of One Mind Church in Woodbridge to heal him of what the church's head pastor called "demonic power."
But before the church could act late last summer, Seung Hui Cho had to return to Virginia Tech to start his senior year, said the Rev. Dong Cheol Lee, minister of the Presbyterian congregation.
College might have been the worst place for Cho, according to interviews with classmates, church members and other acquaintances. At home, he had his parents, his sister and some structure and discipline. At Westfield High School in Chantilly, where he graduated in 2003, he was studious and had joined the science club.
Now, new details have emerged suggesting that Cho's mental condition worsened at Virginia Tech, especially in his senior year after his mother had sought to step in back home. His isolation grew, and his attention to schoolwork and class time dropped, according to numerous interviews. On April 16, he killed 32 people and himself in the deadliest shooting rampage by an individual in U.S. history.
Cho's family has said nothing publicly about his medical history, his academic performance or anything else that might explain what drove him to kill. Nevertheless, Hyang In Cho knew last year that her son was troubled. Before finding One Mind, she had gone to several other congregations of various denominations seeking help, according to officials at several Northern Virginia churches.
"His problem needed to be solved by spiritual power," said Lee, whose church members met with Cho and his mother. "That's why she came to our church -- because we were helping several people like him." Those churchgoers told Hyang In Cho that her son was afflicted by demonic power and needed deliverance, Lee said.
At first, Cho seemed to have tried to fit in at Virginia Tech. He had started out in college attending classes and studying faithfully. He wore a Virginia Tech baseball cap, jeans and T-shirts to class. When funny things were said in his Advanced Fiction class last fall, he would smile along with everyone else, recalled a classmate, J.D. Medlock, 22.
Cho had also reached out to female classmates, including one venture on Facebook, but it only served to upset some women enough for them to contact police. By senior year, his suitemates never saw him with a book or heading to class.
"He would just sit there," said Karan Grewal, one of five students who shared a three-bedroom suite in Harper Hall with Cho. Grewal added that Cho, who was assigned the suite randomly, would sit in a wood rocker by the window and stare at the lawn below.
What Cho was thinking remains a mystery; so many who knew him say they never heard him speak until the video he mailed to NBC News was aired on television. One clue exists in Cho's final selection of courses. He was taking a sociology class called Deviant Behavior, according to interviews. The class met on the second floor of Norris Hall, where most of the shootings occurred.
Relatives say Seung Hui Cho had suffered from a mental disability from a young age. Kim Yang Soon, a great aunt in South Korea, said Cho exhibited violent anger even as a child. It remains unclear whether his parents sought psychiatric or other professional help for their son in addition to the religious assistance.
Before coming to the United States, Cho's father ran a secondhand bookstore that didn't make much money, relatives said. The family had rented a three-room basement in a suburb of Seoul that was no larger than 430 square feet. Now unoccupied and full of mildew, it was the least-expensive rental in the building, according to Korean news reports.
The Chos told friends that they came to the United States for the sake of their children's education. They arrived in Detroit, where the family had relatives, before moving to Northern Virginia. Cho's father, Seung Tae Cho, worked long hours pressing pants in at least four dry cleaners in Manassas, Leesburg, Herndon and Centreville. Cho's sister, Sun Kyung Cho, entered Princeton University in 1999. Despite his silence, Cho was academically capable as well.
Taylor Van Buskirk, who was in the science club with Cho at Westfield High, recalled that Cho seemed to get irritated when other club members tried to talk to him. But Van Buskirk said he had no doubts that Cho was smart. During a science competition his sophomore year, Cho played the key role in helping his club win a first-place prize when he figured out the right formula to use during an experiment.
"He seemed to be a math whiz," Van Buskirk said. "He just kept to himself. He studied by himself. He got good grades; he didn't have any tutors."
Two other members of the club said that Cho was in honors classes and at least one Advanced Placement class at Westfield.
Cho started at Virginia Tech with high ambitions. He declared his major as business information technology, according to the 2003-04 university directory. A combination of computer science and management coursework offered by the Pamplin College of Business, BIT is one of Virginia Tech's most challenging undergraduate disciplines -- and No. 6 on the university's list of majors with the highest median starting salary after graduation.
Cho's freshman roommate, Francis Virtudes, said Cho seemed to study all the time, sitting at his desk or by himself in the dining hall, an open book in front of him.
But by December 2005, Cho was exhibiting signs of trouble. Two female students he tried to contact found his behavior disturbing and contacted campus police. He was sent to a mental health facility that month, and a judge ordered him to receive outpatient treatment.
And by his senior year, Cho appeared to never go to class or read a book, said Grewal. He would type on his laptop, go to the dining hall or gym and clip his hair in the bathroom (and clean up the mess). During one period last fall, he rode his bicycle in circles in the parking lot of their dorm, Grewal said.
Cho was an English major at the time of the shootings, no longer studying business. Virginia Tech officials, citing privacy laws, would not discuss Cho's academic record, including why he changed his major, what his grades were or whether he attended class in the months before his rampage. Mark Owczarski, Virginia Tech's director of news and information, noted that the school offers many programs to help students deal with campus life.
Any college campus hours from home would have been a difficult place to fit in for someone who struggled to communicate as much as Cho did.
Cho was close to none of the other Westfield graduates who entered Virginia Tech in 2003. He made no friends his freshman year, Virtudes recalled. He did not have visitors to his room on the second floor of Miles Hall. Cho moved in with Virtudes partway through freshman year, but only after inquiring whether Virtudes played loud music.
The aloneness could have only grown worse for Cho on an enormous campus where for many students social contact is at least as important as academics. Sixty-four fraternities and sororities are active on campus. And there are 600 registered student organizations -- from the Boxing Club to the Romanian Student Association.
"Nobody ever shuts out anybody here on purpose," said Alia Ghannam, 22, an English major who belongs to a sorority and an a cappella group and was part of the homecoming court this year. "You have to try hard to live in that kind of solitude here."
Solitude came naturally for Cho.
He played video games, but students from the gaming club never met him. He came from a Christian family, but the campus ministers don't remember him. He knew something about video editing, but the regulars at the student television station had not heard of him. Grewal never heard his voice, didn't know what classes he took. Those in the suite next door, he said, never knew of Cho until April 16.
"They were like, 'That guy lived here?' " Grewal recalled.
Others, though, said they tried to be friends with Cho.
Charlotte Peterson, a former Virginia Tech student, said she shared a British literature class with Cho in fall 2005. She regarded him as a loner but had spoken to him during class. At some point during the semester, she said, "he friended me" on Facebook, meaning that he invited her to his Web page as a participant. His name on Facebook was "?" -- a way Cho often identified himself.
But two weeks later, a friend of Peterson's gave her a warning: Stay away from him. The friend told Peterson that Cho had bothered her and that she had gone to police. Peterson deleted herself from Cho's page.
Staff writers Tom Jackman and Theresa Vargas contributed to this report.