April 18, 2007
Gunman Showed Signs of Anger
By MANNY FERNANDEZ and MARC SANTORA
BLACKSBURG, Va., April 18 — Cho Seung-Hui rarely spoke to his own dormitory roommate. His teachers were so disturbed by some of his writing that they referred him to counseling. And when Mr. Cho finally and horrifyingly came to the world’s attention on Monday, he did so after writing a note that bitterly lashed out at his fellow students for what he deemed their moral decay.
Mr. Cho’s eruption of violence, in which 32 victims and himself were killed on the Virginia Tech campus here in a rampage of gunfire, was never directly signaled by his actions or words, several of his acquaintances said Tuesday. But those acquaintances were frequently disturbed by his isolation from the world and his barely concealed anger.
Joe Aust, who shared Room 2121 at Harper Hall with him, said he had spoken to Mr. Cho often but had received only one-word replies. Later, Mr. Aust said, Mr. Cho stopped talking to him entirely. Mr. Aust would sometimes enter the room and find Mr. Cho sitting at his desk, staring into nothingness.
“He was always really, really quiet and kind of weird, keeping to himself all the time,” said Mr. Aust, a 19-year-old sophomore, who, though finding Mr. Cho strange, had not thought him menacing.
Yet there were signs that his behavior was more than just bizarre.
Lucinda Roy said that in October of 2005 she was contacted as head of the English Department by a professor who was disturbed by a piece of his writing. Ms. Roy, rebuffed by Mr. Cho, contacted the campus police, counseling services, student affairs and officials in her department. Ms. Roy described the writing as a “veiled threat rather than something explicit.”
University officials told her that she could drop Mr. Cho from the class. Or, they said, she could tutor him individually, and she agreed to do so three times from October to December 2005. During those sessions, she said in an interview, he always wore sunglasses and a baseball cap pulled low.
“He seemed to be crying behind his sunglasses,” she said.
Ms. Roy said she had been so nervous about taking him on as an individual student that she worked out a code with her assistant: if she mentioned the name of a dead professor, her assistant would know it was time to call security.
Nikki Giovanni, whose poetry classes Mr. Cho attended in 2005, said today that other students had left the class because of Mr. Cho, and she was so concerned about his behavior that she wrote to Ms. Roy about it.
“I was willing to resign before I was going to continue with him,” Ms. Giovanni said in an interview with CNN. “People just quit coming to class, a couple of students absolutely quit coming to class.”
Ms. Roy said she contacted the campus police, student affairs, counseling services, the college, and the police, who offered to provide security for Ms. Giovanni during classes, but she declined. The police would take no further action because Mr. Cho’s works contained no direct threats, she said.
Ms. Roy told CNN that she “felt strongly that he was suicidal.” She said: ”It was really like talking to a hole sometimes, as though the person wasn’t really there." Ms. Giovanni said Mr. Cho did not scare her, but she once instructed him to stop his disturbing writings. “He said ‘You can’t make me,’ and I said ‘Yeah, I can.’”
“This was not a poem ....he was writing, just weird things,” she added. “I don’t know if I’m allowed to say what he was writing about. I saw the plays, but he was writing poetry, it was terrible, it was not like poetry, it was intimidating.”
In another writing class, Mr. Cho submitted two profoundly violent and profane plays. Ian MacFarlane, a classmate who now works for America Online, posted the plays on the company’s Web site Tuesday, saying they had horrified the rest of the students.
“When we read Cho’s plays, it was like something out of a nightmare,” Mr. MacFarlane wrote. “The plays had really twisted, macabre violence that used weapons I wouldn’t have even thought of.”
As a result of them, Mr. MacFarlane added, “we students were talking to each other with serious worry about whether he could be a school shooter.”
In one play, called “Richard McBeef,” Mr. Cho wrote of a teenage boy who accuses his stepfather of murdering the boy’s father and of trying to molest the boy himself.
“I hate him,” the boy says of the stepfather in a copy of the play on the Web site. “Must kill Dick. Must kill Dick. Dick must die.”
Though the level of anger was clear to those who knew Mr. Cho, there is little that points to a precise motive for Monday’s events. Or, as a federal law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity put it: “What was this kid thinking about? There are no indications.”
There are just the snippets of a lonely young life: prescription medicines, ominous words and two newly bought handguns.
Mr. Cho was a 23-year-old senior, skinny and boyish-looking, his hair cut in a short, military-style fashion. He was a native of South Korea who grew up in Centreville, Va., a suburb of Washington, where his family owns a dry-cleaning business. He moved with his family to the United States at age 8, in 1992, according to federal immigration authorities, and was a legal permanent resident, not a citizen.
In the suite in Harper Hall where he lived with five other students, he was known as a loner, almost a stranger, amid a student body of 26,000. He ate his meals alone in a dining hall. Karan Grewal, 21, another student in the suite, recalled that when a candidate for student council visited there this year to pass out candy and ask for votes, Mr. Cho refused even to make eye contact.
On Tuesday, investigators were examining a note Mr. Cho had left behind in his dorm room, a rambling and bitter list of the moral laxity he found among what he considered the more privileged students on campus.
Centreville is an unincorporated community of 48,000 about 20 miles from Washington in Fairfax County. Mr. Cho graduated in 2003 from Westfield High School in nearby Chantilly, a large school that sends dozens of its students to Virginia Tech. At least two of Mr. Cho’s victims had also attended Westfield.
The Cho residence in Centreville is on Truitt Farm Drive in a subdivision of attached townhouses called Sully Station II. The family was not at home on Tuesday. But neighbors said three unmarked police cruisers arrived at the house about 10:30 p.m. Monday, and came and went throughout the rest of the evening. The neighbors had only nice things to say about the Cho family; the father sometimes cleaned the snow off his neighbor’s car across the street.
Every 10 years, lawful permanent residents are required to renew their green cards. Mr. Cho did so, and was issued a new card on Oct. 27, 2003. Applicants seeking a green-card renewal undergo a criminal background check through various law enforcement databases, said Chris Bentley, a spokesman for United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. “Nothing showed up in those checks that told us he couldn’t have his green-card renewal,” Mr. Bentley said.
Mr. Cho went to bed early by college standards, about 9 p.m. He often rose early, but in recent weeks he had been doing so even earlier, frequently before dawn, said Mr. Aust, his roommate. Such was the case Monday.
Mr. Cho awoke before 5 a.m., then sat down to work on his computer and awakened Mr. Aust in the process. Mr. Grewal, who shares a room in the same suite, saw Mr. Cho in the bathroom shortly after 5 a.m.
As usual, Mr. Cho did not say anything to Mr. Grewal. No good morning, no hello, Mr. Grewal said. Mr. Cho stood in the bathroom, brushing his teeth, wetting his contact lenses and applying a moisturizer.
He also took a prescription medicine. Neither Mr. Aust nor Mr. Grewal knew what the medicine was for, but officials said prescription medications related to the treatment of psychological problems had been found among Mr. Cho’s effects.
Christine Hauser contributed reporting from New York.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company