April 22, 2007
Before Deadly Rage, a Life Consumed by a Troubling Silence
By N. R. KLEINFIELD
From the beginning, he did not talk. Not to other children, not to his own family. Everyone saw this. In Seoul, South Korea, where Seung-Hui Cho grew up, his mother agonized over his sullen, brooding behavior and empty face. Talk, she just wanted him to talk.
“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, Mr. Cho’s 84-year-old great-aunt.
When his parents announced when he was 8 that they were going to America, their relatives were gladdened. “We thought that it would help the boy gain confidence if he moved to the United States’ open society,” said an uncle who asked to be identified only by his last name, Kim.
And yet when he and others heard from Mr. 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 morning last Monday at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., he massacred 27 students and 5 teachers before killing himself.
No one could understand why. On Friday, his sister issued a statement of apology and sorrow that revealed the family’s own bewilderment. “This is someone that I grew up with and loved,” she said. “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, there was never much money, never enough time. The Cho family occupied a shabby two-room basement apartment, living frugally on the slender proceeds of a used-book shop. According to relatives, the father, Seung-Tae Cho, had worked in oil fields and on construction sites in Saudi Arabia. In an arranged marriage, he wed Kim Hwang-Im, the daughter of a farming family that had fled North Korea during the Korean War.
Their son was well behaved, all right, but his pronounced bashfulness deeply worried his parents. Relatives thought he might be a mute. 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 1984, relatives who had moved to the United States invited the family to join them. It took eight years to get a visa. In 1992, they arrived in Detroit and then moved on to Centreville, Va., home to a bustling Korean community on the fringe of Washington. They found jobs in the dry-cleaning business and worked the longest of hours. Dry cleaning is a favored profession among Koreans — some 1,800 of the 2,000 dry cleaners in the greater Washington area are run by Koreans — because it means Sundays off for church and sparse need for proficient English, exchanges with customers being brief and redundant.
The goal, of course, was to own one’s own business. But it did not happen for Seung-Tae Cho. He began as a presser — an 8 a.m.-to-10 p.m. job — and that is what he is today. His wife worked in the same capacity until a few years ago, when she accepted a job in a high school cafeteria so the family could have medical insurance.
They lived in a nondescript row house in a modest section of town, friendly but not overly sociable. Jeff Ahn, president of the League of Korean-Americans of Virginia, said the family was uncommonly private among the throbbing Korean-American community of about 200,000 in and around Washington. They shunned the more prominent Korean-language Christian churches, and prayed at a small church outside of town.
High school did not help Seung-Hui Cho surmount his miseries. He went to Westfield High School, one of the largest schools in Fairfax County. He was scrawny and looked younger than his age. He was unresponsive in class, and unwilling to speak.
And that haunted face.
Classmates recall some teasing and bullying over his taciturn nature. The few times he was required to speak for a class assignment, students mocked his poor English and deep-throated voice.
And so he chose invisibility. Neighbors would spot him shooting baskets by himself. When they said hello, he ignored them, as if he were not there. “Like he had a broken heart,” said Abdul Shash, a next-door neighbor.
The Korean community of Centreville is a high-aspiring one, and nothing matters more than bright futures for its children. The area is speckled with tutoring academies — “Believe & Achieve,” “Ivy Academy” — high SAT scores and road maps to elite colleges. The local Korean papers publish lists of students admitted to Ivy League institutions. Mr. Cho’s older sister, Sun-Kyung Cho, went to Princeton and made the lists, but not him. She now works as a contractor for the State Department.
When Mr. Cho entered Virginia Tech, which is crouched in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwest Virginia, his parents drove him to school with guarded expectations. Perhaps he would no longer retreat to video games and playing basketball alone the way he did at home. Perhaps college might crack the mystery of who he was, extract him from his suffocating cocoon and make him talk.
Girls figured somewhere in his yearnings, but always from a distance.
In his junior year, Mr. Cho told his then-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, one of his roommates, returned to their suite one day, Mr. Cho shooed him away. He told him Jelly was there. He said she called him Spanky. SpankyJelly became his instant-message screen name.
He became fixated on several real female students. Two of them complained to the police that he was calling them, showing up at their rooms and bombarding them with instant messages. They found him bothersome but not threatening. After the second complaint against him in December 2005, the police came by and told him to stop.
A few hours after they left, he sent an instant message to one of his roommates suggesting he might as well kill himself. The campus police were called, and Mr. 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 there declared him mentally ill but not an imminent threat. Rather than commit him, the judge allowed him to undergo outpatient treatment. Officials say they do not know whether he did.
His junior-year roommates mostly ignored him because he was so withdrawn. If he said something, it was weird. During Thanksgiving break, Mr. Koch recalled, Mr. Cho called him to report that he was vacationing in North Carolina with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president; Mr. Cho said he had grown up with him in Moscow.
In class, some students thought he might be a deaf-mute. 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. Sometimes Mr. Cho 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 instead of his name.
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. In a poetry class in his junior year, women 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 at Virginia Tech, began to tutor him privately. She, too, was unnerved. She brought him to the attention of the counseling service and the campus police because she thought he was so miserable he might kill himself.
During their private sessions, she arranged a code with her assistant. If she uttered the name of a dead professor, the assistant was to call security.
Last semester, he took a playwriting class in which he submitted two one-act plays, “Richard McBeef” and “Mr. Brownstone,” both foulmouthed rants. In “Richard McBeef,” a 13-year-old threatens to kill his stepfather. Steven Davis, a senior in the class, said he finished reading the play one night, turned to his roommate and said, “This is the kind of guy who is going to walk into a classroom and start shooting people.”
The first gun he bought was a Walther .22-caliber pistol. He ordered it from an Internet gun site and picked it up at a pawnshop near campus on Feb. 9.
Why then? Investigators say they are trying to discover if there was some precipitating event. Evidently, though, a plan had been hatched and was in motion.
On March 12, according to a law enforcement official who spoke on the condition of anonymity, Mr. Cho rented a van from Enterprise Rent-A-Car at the Roanoke Regional Airport that he kept for almost a month. The next day, he bought the second gun at Roanoke Firearms, where he laid out the requisite three pieces of identification: his Virginia driver’s license, his green card and a personal check. He paid by credit card: $571 for a 9-millimeter Glock pistol, one of the store’s best sellers, a favorite for target shooting and self-defense. He took 50 rounds of ammunition.
On March 22, Mr. Cho showed up at the PSS Range, advertised as “Roanoke’s only indoor pistol range,” $10 an hour. Mr. Cho spent an hour practicing and bought four ammunition magazines for the Glock. Range employees, investigators said, remembered a young Asian man videotaping himself inside a van in the parking lot.
Over the next few weeks, he fulfilled the rest of his shopping list. Investigators said he went to the Wal-Mart in Christiansburg on March 31, April 7, April 8 and April 13. During those visits, 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 magazines of ammunition. He got chains at Home Depot.
On March 28, he stayed at the MainStay Suites in Roanoke, according to Ed Wray, the general manager. On April 8, he spent the night at the Hampton Inn in Christiansburg. Investigators think that some of his videos were shot in this hotel room, because a gold extension cord for a lamp that is visible in one of the images resembles one in the room.
All told, investigators calculate that Mr. Cho spent several thousand dollars getting ready for April 16, most of it charged to a credit card.
In the last few weeks, Mr. Cho’s roommates noticed a few new oddities in this most odd man. He cropped his hair to a military buzz cut. In the evenings, he was working out with a certain frenzy at the gym.
None of his roommates had known him until this academic year. He was a senior, an English major, and someone who, at 23, was older.
Throughout the term, they had not seen him with anyone who might constitute a friend. He ate his meals in the dining hall in solitude, embracing what they took to be a subaltern status they assumed he preferred.
The six roommates occupied Suite 2120 in Harper Hall, designed in requisite college bland: a cinderblock common area, three compressed bedrooms, a single bathroom. Sharing a bathroom lets you learn things about your roommates, but not everything. They knew that he took medication but did not know what it was for. He had acne.
It was common for him to go to sleep at 9 p.m., unthinkable for a college student, and to awaken at 7 a.m. But lately he had been getting up earlier and earlier, as if there were insufficient time to do what he needed to do.
It was not yet 5 a.m. on Monday when Joe Aust, a sophomore who shared Mr. Cho’s room, heard his rustlings. He was already crouched at his computer, where, from his copious music downloads, he liked to repeatedly play “Shine,” a song of spiritual longing from the Georgia alternative rock band Collective Soul.
Karan Grewal, 21, another suitemate, bumped into Mr. Cho in the bathroom. Not a word.
Mr. Cho dabbed moisturizer on his eyes and slid in contact lenses. He brushed his teeth.
The groggy Mr. Aust went back to sleep. When he got up about 7 to prepare for class, Mr. Cho was gone.
Emily Hilscher, a freshman, lived in Room 4040, near the elevators on the fourth floor of West Ambler Johnston Hall, one building from Harper. Shortly after 7 a.m., she was killed by bullets from Mr. Cho’s gun. The same fate met Ryan Clark, one of the dorm’s resident advisers. Mr. Clark is believed to have come out of his room to investigate the noise, only to stumble into death.
Officials say they know of no connection between Mr. Cho and Ms. Hilscher, and remain baffled about why he began there and why he chose not to end there. “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 campus police received a 911 call at 7:15, when the rest of the campus was still opening its eyes, the thousands of students who commuted to school not yet on the grounds.
Classes had not begun, and the campus was not alerted to the dormitory killings. The university police quickly picked up some information, and the nature of it led them to make a decision and follow a trail. Ms. Hilscher’s roommate, Heather Haughn, had shown up at 7:30 to meet her and accompany her to class. Instead, she encountered the campus police.
One of the things she told them was that Ms. Hilscher had a boyfriend, Karl D. Thornhill, a senior at nearby Radford University; Ms. Hilscher had spent the weekend with him at his off-campus townhouse, and he had dropped her off at her dorm that morning. Ms. Haughn also told them that Mr. Thornhill had guns and had been shooting them at a range two weeks earlier.
Based on what she said, the police concluded that they had the most clichéd script of all — the lovers’ quarrel. They went looking for Mr. Thornhill, and found him on the highway, driving home from a class. They pulled him over and started interrogating him.
But he was the wrong man, and the police were at the wrong place.
That gave Mr. Cho time, and he had uses for it.
The police know he returned to his dorm room because he accessed photo files there. He harbored messages of hate, and now was when he chose to offer them to the world.
He assembled a package, and in it were QuickTime videos of himself, 43 photographs and an 1,800-word statement outlining his place in a world he saw arrayed against him. Many of the 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 standing lined up as if soldiers awaiting inspection.
His rage was brutally transparent in his multimedia screed and suicide note. 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 said, “You have vandalized my heart, raped my soul and torched my conscience.”
“You had a hundred billion chances and ways to have avoided today,” he said. “But you decided to spill my blood. You forced me into a corner and gave me only one option. The decision was yours. Now you have blood on your hands that will never wash off.”
He took his package to the small post office a few blocks from the main gates of campus and arranged with the postal clerk to send it by overnight mail to NBC in New York. The postage was $14.40. It was time-stamped at 9:01 a.m. Then, investigators say, he went back to the dorm to arm himself.
At 9:26 a.m., the university issued this e-mail message to the campus: “A shooting incident occurred at West Ambler Johnston earlier this morning. Police are on the scene and are investigating. The university community is urged to be cautious and are asked to contact Virginia Tech Police if you observe anything suspicious or with information on the case.”
By then, though, the calculus of the day had already set in motion the next sequence, and there was nothing to stand in its way.
Norris Hall is a brown, cavernous, L-shaped classroom building situated across the drill field on the other side of campus from Harper Hall. It can be walked from Harper Hall in less than 15 minutes.
Sometime around 9:30, Mr. Cho stepped inside Norris Hall. He was wearing cargo pants, a sweatshirt, an ammunition vest and a maroon cap, the school color. He carried a backpack — a receipt for one of the guns stuffed inside — and he was carrying chains and some knives. On one arm was inscribed Ax Ismael, a name whose significance has not been determined but might be a Biblical allusion.
He unfurled the chains and wrapped them around the interior handles of the doors. The entrance secured, he mounted the stairs to the second floor and the classrooms. Second period had begun.
The stairs he took emptied into the short end of the L, where there were seven classrooms. Two were vacant, and five were in session: Rooms 204, 205, 206, 207, 211. Gun drawn, he forged into four of them. Inside of 10 to 15 minutes, forensics evidence concluded, he fired more than 175 rounds in killing 30 people, the worst slaughter of its kind in the history of the country.
The first police officers on the scene forced their way in by blasting open the front doors with a shotgun. That blast, investigators believe, alerted Mr. Cho that he had time for only one more shot.
They found his body sprawled in the stairwell. He had turned one of his guns around and shot himself. The officers shouted, “Shooter down! Shooter down! Black tag!” Black tag is police code for dead.
And that was all the killing there would be at one mountainside college campus on one awful Monday.
In death, Seung-Hui Cho finally spoke, but it was through the QuickTime videos received by NBC and broadcast on Wednesday. A pastor at a Korean church in Centreville watched the 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.”
Reporting was contributed by Choe Sang-Hun from Seoul, South Korea; Sarah Abruzzese, Serge F. Kovaleski and Katie Zezima from Blacksburg, Va.; Cara Buckley and Suevon Lee from Fairfax County, Va.; and William K. Rashbaum from New York.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company