By Sari Horwitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 19, 2007
Federal agents investigating the April 16 shootings at Virginia Tech think Seung Hui Cho displayed many of the same characteristics of a criminal behavioral profile called the "Collector of Injustice," or someone who considers any misfortune against him the fault or responsibility of others.
Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives also think Cho mentally and physically tried to transform himself into an alter ego he called "Ax Ishmael" before his rampage.
In the days and weeks leading up to the massacre of 32 students and faculty members, Cho changed his personality from passive to active. On the morning of the shootings, which the agents say were motivated by a vendetta against society, he tried to further erase his identity by deleting his Hotmail account from his computer. In addition, he removed the hard drive, and investigators have not been able to find it, the agents say.
When police found Cho's body inside a Norris Hall classroom, the words "Ax Ishmael" were scrawled in red on his left arm, and notes and tapes he left also referred to them.
Investigators think "Ax Ishmael" is based on the biblical figure Ishmael, the son of Hagar, a maidservant to Sarah, and the prophet Abraham. Ishmael lived as an outcast, and his brother Isaac was favored. Writings that Cho left in his dorm room, sent to the Virginia Tech English Department and mailed to NBC reveal twisted references to religion as part of his identity.
This working theory is part of the preliminary findings of an enormous law enforcement investigation. Over the past two months, state police and federal agents have documented and tracked more than 700 leads and conducted thousands of interviews. They do not think Cho targeted anyone individually. Police have also looked for Cho's hard drive, including a search of the Virginia Tech duck pond, where someone saw Cho early on the morning of the shootings.
Nearly 400 state troopers and investigators, with agents from the ATF and FBI, have worked on the case.
Dubbed Operation Prevail, the investigation has explored every aspect of Cho's life, including mental health issues and his school records. Authorities have tracked down his credit card purchases of guns and ammunition and any possible connections to his victims. Armed with subpoenas, they painstakingly examined all of the computer accounts of Cho and his victims.
ATF agents have assembled a sketch of Cho that they say fits the "Collector of Injustice" profile.
"It is always someone else's fault, and the world is out to get them," Bart McEntire, the resident agent in charge of the ATF's Roanoke office, said in describing people who fit the profile. Eventually, the person's compilation of wrongs becomes overloaded, and he lashes out violently to right them and get even with those who he believes have caused him misfortune and ridicule.
The manifesto that Cho left in his dorm room, with other writings that investigators have studied, indicate that Cho believed that people had no respect for him or others he perceived were like him, and that he planned to do something about it. In one writing, he warned: "Kill yourselves or you will never know how the dorky kid that [you] publicly humiliated and spat on will come behind you and slash your throats. . . . Kill yourselves or you will never know the hour the little kid will come with hundreds of rounds of ammunition on his back to shoot you down."
In another, he sarcastically thanked everyone who had treated him as a "filthy street dog" and an "ugly, little, retarded, low-life kid."
Cho, 23, of Centreville, whose family was religious and had sought help for him from a Woodbridge church, repeatedly made religious references. He said that he had been "crucified" and that, as with Jesus, his actions would set people free. He called himself a "martyr" who would "sacrifice" his life. He wrote that he would go down in history as the "Jesus Christ of the Weak and Defenseless." He thought his actions would inspire others to fight back and get even.
Among the writings, Cho included three pictures of himself, which investigators think show how his self-image progressed. In the first picture, he is smiling. In the next, his arms are outstretched like Jesus's on the cross. And in the third, his arms are crossed as if he is lying dead in a coffin, agents said.
As part of his physical transformation, investigators have said, he methodically bought weapons and clothes for his killing spree. They have documented his purchases in detail, from the cargo pants he wore in Norris Hall to the hundreds of rounds of ammunition he carried and his visits to a nearby firing range.
When he was ready, he wrote: "I am Ax Ishmael."
Police have not discovered why he uses the word "Ax," but his writings suggest he identified with Ishmael. According to some religious scholars, Ishmael held his brothers in contempt, despised the rituals of society and considered himself to be free of social control.
The writings also reveal that Cho had decided to strike out against those who had committed what he perceived were injustices against him: "I say we take up the cross, Children of Ishmael, take up our guns and knives . . . and take no prisoners and spare no lives."
State police officials would not comment on the ATF's theory about Cho. They said investigators do not now why Cho chose his particular victims or the locations of his killings.
"We don't know all the answers," State Police Superintendent W. Steven Flaherty said in an interview. "There are hundreds of items of evidence at the medical examiner. There are hundreds and hundreds of interviews. It could be another six months. We are interviewing and re-interviewing. Law enforcement only gets one chance to get this right."