Shooter's lifetime of silent brooding led to shattering outburst
From the beginning, he did not talk. Not to other children, not to his family. Everyone saw this. In Seoul, South Korea, where Seung-Hui...
The New York Times
From the beginning, he did not talk. Not to other children, not to his family. Everyone saw this. In Seoul, South Korea, where Seung-Hui Cho spent his early childhood, his mother agonized over his sullen, brooding behavior and empty face.
"When I told his mother that he was a good boy, quiet but well-behaved, she said she would rather have him respond to her when talked to than be good and meek," said Kim Yang-Soon, Cho's 84-year-old great-aunt.
When his parents announced when he was 8 that they were going to America, relatives were gladdened. "We thought that it would help the boy gain confidence if he moved to the United States' open society," an uncle said.
Yet when he and others heard from Cho's mother, it was the same dismal story: a buried life of silence. In church, she told them, she prayed for God to transform her son. By now, the world knows what Seung-Hui Cho became, how on a gusty, snowy Monday morning at Virginia Tech, he massacred 27 students and five teachers before killing himself.
"This is someone that I grew up with and loved," his sister said in a family statement Friday. "Now I feel like I didn't know this person."
Interviews with investigators, relatives, classmates and teachers offer inklings of how he progressed from silence to murderous rage, and show how he meticulously prepared for his final hours.
In Seoul, the Cho family occupied a two-room basement apartment, living frugally on the proceeds of a used-book shop. The father, Seung-Tae Cho, had worked in oil fields and on construction sites in Saudi Arabia. In an arranged marriage, he had wed Kim Hwang-Im, whose family fled North Korea during the Korean War.
Their son was well-behaved, but relatives thought he might be unable to speak or mentally ill. "The kid didn't say much and didn't mix with other children," his uncle said. " 'Yes, sir' was about all you could get from him."
In 1992, the Cho family emigrated to America, first arriving in Detroit and then moving to Centreville, Va. They found jobs in dry cleaning.
High school did not help Seung-Hui Cho surmount his miseries. He was unresponsive in class and unwilling to speak. Classmates recall teasing and bullying.
When he did speak for a class assignment, students mocked his poor English and deep-throated voice.
And so he chose invisibility. When neighbors said hello, he ignored them. "Like he had a broken heart," said Abdul Shash, a next-door neighbor.
When Cho entered Virginia Tech, his parents drove him there with guarded expectations. Perhaps he no longer would retreat to video games and playing basketball alone. Perhaps college might extract him from his cocoon and make him talk.
Girls figured in Cho's yearnings, but from a distance. As a junior, Cho told his roommates that he had a girlfriend. Her name was Jelly. She was a supermodel who lived in outer space and traveled by spaceship, and she existed only in the dimension of his imagination.
When Andy Koch, a roommate, returned to their suite one day, Cho shooed him away. He told him Jelly was there. He said she called him Spanky. SpankyJelly became his instant-message screen name.
He also was fixated on real female students. Two complained to police that he was calling them, showing up at their rooms and bombarding them with instant messages. They found him bothersome, not threatening.
After the second complaint against him in December 2005, police told him to stop. After they left, he sent an instant message to a roommate suggesting he might as well kill himself. Campus police were called, and Cho was sent to an off-campus mental-health facility.
After a counselor recommended involuntary commitment, a judge signed an order deeming him a danger and he was sent for evaluation to Carilion St. Albans Psychiatric Hospital in Radford, Va. A doctor declared him mentally ill but not an imminent threat. The judge allowed him to undergo outpatient treatment. Officials say they do not know whether he did.
In class, some students thought Cho might be unable to hear and speak. A classmate once offered him $10 just to say hello, but got nothing. He hunched there in sunglasses, a baseball cap yanked tight over his head.
Cho sometimes introduced himself as "Question Mark," saying it was the persona of a man who lived on Mars and journeyed to Jupiter. On the sign-in sheet of a literature class, he simply scribbled a question mark.
But he wrote. Those who read his stories, his poems, his plays — they were the ones who wondered.
English teachers were disturbed by his angry writings and oddness. Female students said he would snap pictures of them with his cellphone beneath his desk. Several stopped coming to class.
Lucinda Roy, then head of the English department, began to tutor him privately. She, too, was unnerved. She brought him to the attention of the counseling service and campus police.
The first gun Cho bought was a Walther .22-caliber pistol. He ordered it from an Internet gun site and picked it up at a pawnshop Feb. 9.
Why then? Investigators hope to discover if there was some precipitating event. A plan evidently was in motion.
On March 12, Cho rented a van from Enterprise Rent-A-Car at Roanoke Regional Airport. He kept the vehicle for almost a month.
The next day, he bought the second gun, a 9mm Glock pistol, for $571 at Roanoke Firearms. He took 50 rounds of ammunition.
On March 22, Cho spent an hour practicing at a shooting range and bought four ammunition magazines for the Glock.
He fulfilled the rest of his shopping list over the next few weeks. Investigators said he went to the Wal-Mart in Christiansburg on March 31, April 7, April 8 and April 13. He bought cargo pants, sunglasses and .22-caliber ammunition. He also bought a hunting knife, gloves, a phone item and a granola bar. He visited Dick's Sporting Goods for extra ammunition magazines. He bought chains at Home Depot.
Investigators calculate Cho spent several thousand dollars preparing for Monday, most of it charged to a credit card.
Cho's roommates noticed a few new oddities in the last few weeks: He cropped his hair to a military buzz cut. He was working out with frenzy at a gym in the evenings.
Cho and five roommates occupied a suite in Harper Hall. It was common for him to go to sleep at 9 p.m. and to awaken at 7 a.m. Lately, though, he had been getting up earlier and earlier, as if there were insufficient time to do what he needed to do.
Emily Hilscher, a freshman, lived in West Ambler Johnston Hall, one building from Harper. Shortly after 7 a.m. Monday, she was killed by bullets from Cho's gun. The same fate met Ryan Clark, a dorm resident adviser who is believed to have stumbled into death while investigating the noise.
Officials said they know of no connection between Cho and Hilscher. "The biggest thing for us is Location One," a law-enforcement official said. "Why Location One? Why did he stop at two killings there?"
The police know Cho returned to his dorm room, because he accessed computer files there. He assembled a package — QuickTime videos of himself, 43 photographs and an 1,800-word statement outlining his place in a world he saw arrayed against him. Many snapshots were of him brandishing guns — at nothing, at the camera, at himself. One showed him with a hammer. There was a photo of bullets lined up.
His rage was brutally transparent. He ranted against hedonism and trust funds, against high-class taste for vodka and cognac. He praised the Columbine High School killers as martyrs, and styled himself a Christ figure.
He took his package to the small post office a few blocks from campus, waited behind tax filers, and arranged to send it by overnight mail to NBC in New York. It was time-stamped at 9:01 a.m. He then returned to the dorm to arm himself, investigators say.
Around 9:30, Cho entered Norris Hall, carrying a backpack containing guns, chains and knives. He wrapped the chains around the interior handles of the doors. He mounted the stairs to the second floor and the classrooms.
Carnage in classrooms
Within 15 minutes, he fired more than 175 rounds in killing 30 people in four classrooms.
The first police officers blasted open the front doors with a shotgun. That blast, investigators believe, alerted Cho that he had time for one more shot.
They found his body in a stairwell. He had turned one of his guns on himself. The officers shouted, "Shooter down! Shooter down! Black tag!"
"Black tag" is police code for "dead."
A pastor at a Korean church in Centreville watched Seung-Hui Cho's tapes on television with his family. He told the Seoul newspaper JoongAng Ilbo, "All my family said that was not the Seung-Hui we knew. It was the first time we saw him speaking in full sentences."
New York Times reporters Choe Sang-Hun, Sarah Abruzzese, Serge F. Kovaleski, Katie Zezima, Cara Buckley, Suevon Lee and William K. Rashbaum contributed to this report.
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