Friday, April 20, 2007

The shooting rampage that left 32 Virginia Tech students and faculty members dead this week was inevitable, carried out by a sullen loner with a long history of problems who had been signaling an impending deadly outburst at the southern Virginia school for some time.

Cho Seung-hui, a 23-year-old undergraduate English major and South Korean national who coldly and calculatingly killed his victims, was unashamed as he confessed in a bizarre video delivered as part of a “box of death” package to NBC News in New York. He proclaimed Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold martyrs on par with Jesus Christ. He said he had “only one option.”

“The decision was yours. Now you have blood on your hands that you can never wash off,” Cho said in the self-made video, although he never explained why he targeted the students and staff members for death. “I didn’t have to do it. I could have left. I could have fled. But now I am no longer running.”

Cho and his problems were not unknown to university officials or to those in the community, including a Virginia Tech police officer who wrote in a Dec. 13, 2005, commitment order — after Cho had stalked two women on campus — that the student was “mentally ill” and represented “an imminent danger” to himself and others.

And while Virginia Tech police obtained a temporary detention order from a Montgomery County, Va., magistrate judge for Cho to be evaluated by a public mental health agency, Special Justice Paul M. Barnett later approved outpatient treatment for the young man — agreeing that he was mentally ill but that he represented a danger only to himself.

The ruling tied the university’s hands because Cho had not formally violated the school’s academic honors system or its student-life policy, which prohibits “words or acts” that constitute “abusive conduct” that “demeans, intimidates, threatens or otherwise interferes with another person’s rightful actions or comfort.”

The ruling gave Cho time to write invective-filled epistles against “rich kids,” “debauchery” and “deceitful charlatans”; compose obscenity-laced poetry and plays that frightened his classmates and professors; prepare his hateful package to NBC; and purchase two handguns he would use to kill unsuspecting classmates and faculty members.

“Your Mercedes wasn’t enough, you brats,” Cho declared in the video, wearing a military-style vest and backward baseball cap. “Your golden necklaces weren’t enough, you snobs. Your trust funds wasn’t enough. Your vodka and cognac wasn’t enough. All your debaucheries weren’t enough. Those weren’t enough to fulfill your hedonistic needs. You had everything.

“You had a hundred billion chances and ways to have avoided today,” he said. “But you decided to spill my blood.”

Cho, who had lived in Northern Virginia as a legal permanent resident alien for the past 15 years, left one particularly menacing note in his Harper Hall dorm room, warning that the end was near and there was a deed still to be done, law-enforcement authorities familiar with the document said.

Authorities think that note refers to his wanton slaughter of 30 students and faculty members at Norris Hall, where Cho — armed with Glock 9 mm and Walther P22 handguns and multiple fully loaded magazines — began his attack in the advanced hydrology class on the building’s second floor, killing 13 graduate students.

Before the carnage ended, Cho had killed students and staff members in three other classrooms, 17 deaths in all. It was then that he placed one of his guns in his mouth and pulled the trigger — falling dead among those he had killed.

He had killed two persons on the fourth floor of West Ambler Johnston Hall shortly after 7:15 a.m. and mailed his nightmarish package of macabre videos, photos and an 1,800-word manifesto to NBC at 9:01 a.m. It was a rambling confession and curious video show from a man known to his fellow students and faculty members as an uncommunicative outsider who barely spoke above a whisper and whose face often was hidden under a hat and behind sunglasses.

‘Question Mark Kid’

Cho had left his mark long before Monday’s massacre, his bizarre behavior on campus attracting the attention of both students, many of whom were afraid of him, and faculty members, at least one of whom had him removed from her class because of his menacing behavior.

Several students in the English Department knew Cho as the “Question Mark Kid” after he signed in on the first day of an introduction to British literature class last year with only a “?” and refused to introduce himself to his classmates — instead, snapping their photographs in class with his cell phone.

Virginia Tech Police Chief Wendell Flinchum said his officers met with Cho on two occasions in November and December 2005 after two female students became concerned about phone calls and e-mails they had received from Cho.

Although one of the women told police that Cho was “annoying,” neither pressed charges. As a result of the complaints, the chief said, Cho was referred to the school’s Office of Judicial Affairs, which handled the complaint. The outcome is confidential. The chief said he had no information on what action — if any — was ever taken against Cho.

In December 2005, Chief Flinchum said Virginia Tech police received a call from an acquaintance identified only as “Andy” who was concerned that Cho might be suicidal.

“Officers again met with Cho and talked with him at length. Out of concern for Cho, officers asked him to speak with a counselor. He went voluntarily to the police department,” the chief said. “Based on that interaction with the counselor, a temporary detention order was obtained, and Cho was taken to a mental health facility.”

Cho was recommended for outpatient treatment, although Virginia Tech police, according to state records, had sought a certificate for his “involuntary admission” to a public or private licensed mental health clinic because they thought he was mentally ill and was a danger to himself and others.

Chief Flinchum said his office heard nothing more about Cho after that.

“Since those contacts in November and December of 2005, more than a year ago, I am not aware of any additional incidents or reports that were made to our department,” he said.

But there were other bizarre activities and concerns about the malevolent student, who had no friends and did not seek to make any.

Law-enforcement authorities said Cho was thought to have begun taking medication for depression, although there is no record of this in federal prescription databases. At some point, he had written the words “Ismail Ax” in red ink on the inside of his right arm — apparently a reference to Ismail, the Islamic spelling of “Ishmael,” the son of Abraham called “Isaac” in the Bible who is disowned at God’s order and has since come to symbolize outcasts and outsiders.

In his curious package to NBC, Cho listed the sender as A. Ismail.

And there were the guns.

Found in a backpack Cho carried was a receipt for the 9 mm handgun and a box of ammunition. Cho had purchased the weapon on March 13 for $571 from a Roanoke gun shop. On April 13, Cho acquired the second weapon, a Walther P22 pistol, which he purchased Feb. 9 on an Internet site and which usually costs about $270. Both were legal purchases.

Roanoke Firearms owner John Markell said he was not in the store at the time of the purchase but that Cho was described to him as a “clean-cut college kid.” He said the young man displayed his resident alien green card and, as a result, was legally qualified to purchase a weapon. He said the store would not have sold the weapon and ammunition if it had thought the purchase was “suspicious.”

“It’s bad enough watching the news to find out what he did,” Mr. Markell said. “But to find out he bought it here makes it so much worse.”

Permanent resident aliens may legally purchase firearms after showing proof of residency, passing an immediate automated background check and answering a questionnaire. Virginia Tech students are forbidden to take firearms on to the campus.

The gathering storm

In recent months, Cho’s rambling, sometimes obscene and often gory writings, including a number of screenplays, had become so troubling that the university referred him to counseling. Those who knew him said he had become increasingly erratic in the days before the deadly rampage.

“When we read Cho’s plays, it was like something out of a nightmare,” former classmate Ian McFarlane, now an AOL employee, wrote in a blog posted on an AOL Web site. “The plays had really twisted, macabre violence that used weapons I wouldn’t have even thought of.

“Before Cho got to class that day, we students were talking to each other with serious worry about whether he could be a school shooter. I was even thinking of scenarios of what I would do in case he did come in with a gun, I was that freaked out about him.”

One of Cho’s obscenity-laced plays, “Richard McBeef,” depicts a 13-year-old throwing darts at a picture of his 40-year-old stepfather, a former NFL player, saying: “Must kill Dick. Must kill Dick. Dick must die … You don’t think I can kill you, Dick?”

The boy in the play tells his mother that the stepfather had molested him, which is not true, and she chases the man out of the house with a chainsaw. The boy follows and joins the stepfather in a car, where he is hiding. In the car, the boy tries to choke the stepfather with a half-eaten banana cereal bar, but the stepfather resists and then kills the boy.

The head of the university’s English Department, Carolyn Rude, said that although she did not know Cho, she had spoken to Lucinda Roy, the department’s director of creative writing. Mrs. Roy had Cho in one of her classes and described him as “troubled.”

“There was some concern about him,” Mrs. Rude said. “Sometimes, in creative writing, people reveal things, and you never know if it’s creative or if they’re describing things, if they’re imagining things or just how real it might be. But we’re all alert to not ignore things like this.”

Mrs. Roy said she did not think other students in Cho’s class were safe after he became angry in the classroom, so she tutored him elsewhere. She notified the school’s counseling service and police department about his behavior.

Nikki Giovanni, a noted poet and author who was one of Cho’s professors, dismissed the notion that the student was troubled, saying that he was “mean” and that she immediately suspected he was the gunman when she heard about the shootings.

“I knew when it happened that that’s probably who it was,” said Ms. Giovanni, who had Cho removed from her class in the fall of 2005 because of his menacing behavior. She said two of her students quit attending her poetry sessions because of Cho and that he had begun taking photographs of classmates with his cell phone.

“I was willing to resign before I was going to continue with him,” she said. “I’ve taught troubled youngsters. I’ve taught crazy people. It was the meanness that bothered me.”

Searching for answers

Law-enforcement authorities are now searching Cho’s personal computer for more clues about a motive for the violent rampage that left a trail of death across the Virginia Tech campus. But whatever the reason, his execution of 32 students and faculty members perfectly matches a profile of the “typical school shooter” developed by the U.S. Secret Service after the 1999 killings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.

The Secret Service report, a study of 37 school shooting incidents, concluded they were not spontaneous outbursts, and there usually were warning signs that could be recognizable in time for schools and parents to intervene before the acts of violence were carried out.

The report concluded that most school attacks involve loners who have some kind of grievance, felt bullied in school or were seeking revenge.

Cho displayed some of those warning signs, picked on and taunted by his elementary and high school classmates because of his extreme shyness — long before he ever arrived at Virginia Tech. At Westfield High School in Chantilly, where he was graduated, he rarely spoke, according to former classmates, who said he had a monotone voice and speech difficulties.

His great aunt, Kim Yang-soon, described Cho as “very cold” and said her niece was constantly concerned about him. “Every time I called and asked how he was, she would say she was very worried about him,” Ms. Kim told the Associated Press from her home in South Korea. “Who would have known he would cause such trouble, the idiot.”

Cho’s 81-year-old grandfather told a Seoul newspaper that the family left for the United States, in part, because Cho “couldn’t speak well, but was well-behaved.” The grandfather, identified only as Mr. Kim, said there also were concerns that the boy might be mute.

Cho “didn’t talk much when he was young. He was very quiet, but he didn’t display any peculiarities to suggest he may have problems. We were concerned about him being too quiet and encouraged him to talk more.

“I am devastated. I don’t know what I can tell the victims’ families and the U.S. citizens. I sincerely apologize … as a family member.”

Cho’s sister, Sun Kyung Cho, is a 2004 graduate of Princeton University with a degree in economics and works as a contractor for the Iraq Reconstruction Management Office in Washington, a State Department office that oversees American aid for Iraq.

The office was created to coordinate the Iraqi reconstruction program and seeks to employ “highly skilled and motivated United States citizens.” Sun Kyung Cho previously served as an intern in the department’s International Labor Office and held an economics internship in the summer before her senior year at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, sponsored by Princeton’s International Internship Program.

Princeton University’s weekly bulletin in November 2003 quoted her as saying her time in Bangkok was “the most amazing three months of my life.” She also said: “I think it is always easy for Americans to maintain an American way of life abroad. The best thing is to avoid these traps and go out there and immerse yourself in a new culture.”

An affidavit filed by Virginia State Police to search the young man’s dorm room suggests that the rampage was not a snap decision. The affidavit said Cho may have used bomb threats at the school in recent weeks to gauge the effectiveness of campus police.

In his backpack, police also found a “bomb threat” note directed at the university’s engineering school buildings. There have been two bomb threats at the school in the past three weeks, although police have not linked them to Cho. The affidavit said he possessed “multiple guns including but not limited to” the 9mm and 22-caliber pistols he used in the attacks.

Cho may have laid out the inevitability of the killings in writings found by Virginia State Police in his dorm room, when he said, “You caused me to do this” and in the crude video he sent to NBC News, in which he said, “When the time came, I had to do it.”

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