The gunman in the Virginia Tech massacre was a sullen loner who alarmed professors and classmates with his twisted, violence-drenched creative writing and left a rambling note in his dorm room raging against women and rich kids. A chilling picture emerged Tuesday of Cho Seung-Hui, a 23-year-old senior English major a day after the bloodbath that left 33 people dead, including Cho, who killed himself as police closed in.
News reports said that he may have been taking medication for depression and that he was becoming increasingly violent and erratic.
Despite the many warning signs that came to light in the bloody aftermath, police and university officials offered no clues as to exactly what set Cho off on the deadliest shooting rampage in modern U.S. history.
“He was a loner, and we’re having difficulty finding information about him,” school spokesman Larry Hincker said.
A student who attended Virginia Tech last fall provided obscenity- and violence-laced screenplays that he said Cho wrote as part of a playwriting class they both took. One was about a fight between a stepson and his stepfather, and involved throwing of hammers and attacks with a chainsaw. Another was about students fantasizing about stalking and killing a teacher who sexually molested them.
“When we read Cho’s plays, it was like something out of a nightmare. The plays had really twisted, macabre violence that used weapons I wouldn’t have even thought of,” former classmate Ian McFarlane, now an AOL employee, wrote in a blog posted on an AOL Web site. McFarlane said he and other students “were talking to each other with serious worry about whether he could be a school shooter.”
“We always joked we were just waiting for him to do something, waiting to hear about something he did,” says another classmate, Stephanie Derry. “But when I got the call it was Cho who had done this, I started crying, bawling.”
Professor Carolyn Rude, chairwoman of the university’s English department, says Cho’s writing was so disturbing that he had been referred to the university’s counseling service.
“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,” Rude says. “But we’re all alert to not ignore things like this.”
She says she did not know when Cho was referred for counseling, or what the outcome was. Rude refused to release any of his writings or his grades, citing privacy laws. The counseling service refused to comment.
Cho who arrived in the United States as boy from South Korea in 1992 and was raised in suburban Washington, D.C., where his parents worked at a dry cleaners, left a note in his dorm room that was found after the bloodbath.
A government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he had not been authorized to discuss details of the case, said the note had been described to him as “anti-woman, anti-rich kid.”
The Chicago Tribune reported on its Web site that the note railed against “rich kids,” “debauchery” and “deceitful charlatans” on campus. ABC, citing law enforcement sources, said that the note, several pages long, explains Cho’s actions and says, “You caused me to do this.”
Col. Steve Flaherty, superintendent of the Virginia State Police, says there was no evidence so far that Cho left a suicide note, but he says authorities were going through a considerable number of writings.
Citing unidentified sources, the Tribune also said Cho had recently set a fire in a dorm room and had stalked some women.
Monday’s rampage consisted of two attacks more than two hours apart — first at a dormitory, where two people were killed, then inside a classroom building, where 31 people, including Cho, died. Two handguns, a 9mm Glock and a .22-caliber Walther, were found in the classroom building.
The Washington Post quoted law enforcement sources as saying Cho died with the words “Ismail Ax” in red ink on one of his arms, but they were not sure what that meant.
According to court papers, police found a “bomb threat” note directed at engineering school buildings near the victims in the classroom building. In the past three weeks, Virginia Tech received two other bomb threats. Investigators have not connected those earlier threats to Cho.
Cho graduated from Westfield High School in Chantilly, Va., in 2003. His family lived in an off-white, two-story townhouse in Centreville, Va.
At least one of those killed in the rampage, Reema Samaha, graduated from Westfield High in 2006. But there was no immediate word from authorities on whether Cho knew the young woman and singled her out.
“He was very quiet, always by himself,” neighbor Abdul Shash says. Shash says Cho spent a lot of his free time playing basketball and would not respond if someone greeted him.
Classmates painted a similar picture. Some said that on the first day of a British literature class last year, the 30 or so students went around and introduced themselves. When it was Cho’s turn, he didn’t speak.
On the sign-in sheet where everyone else had written their names, Cho had written a question mark. “Is your name, ‘Question mark?’” classmate Julie Poole recalled the professor asking. The young man offered little response.
Cho spent much of that class sitting in the back of the room, wearing a hat and seldom participating. In a small department, Cho distinguished himself for being anonymous. “He didn’t reach out to anyone. He never talked,” Poole said. “We just really knew him as the question mark kid.”
One law enforcement official said Cho’s backpack contained a receipt for a March purchase of the 9mm pistol. Cho held a green card, meaning he was a legal, permanent resident. That meant he was eligible to buy a handgun unless he had been convicted of a felony.
Roanoke Firearms owner John Markell said his shop sold the Glock and a box of practice ammo to Cho 36 days ago for $571.
“He was a nice, clean-cut college kid. We won’t sell a gun if we have any idea at all that a purchase is suspicious,” Markell said.
Investigators stopped short of saying Cho carried out both attacks. But State Police ballistics tests showed one gun was used in both.
And two law enforcement officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because the information had not been announced, said Cho’s fingerprints were on both guns, whose serial numbers had been filed off.
Gov. Tim Kaine says he will appoint a panel at the university’s request to review authorities’ handling of the disaster. Parents and students bitterly complained that the university should have locked down the campus immediately after the first burst of gunfire and did not do enough to warn people.
Kaine warned against making snap judgments and said he had “nothing but loathing” for those who take the tragedy and “make it their political hobby horse to ride.”
On Tuesday afternoon, thousands of people gathered in the basketball arena for a memorial service for the victims, with an overflow crowd of thousands watching on a jumbo TV screen in the football stadium. President Bush and the first lady attended.
“As you draw closer to your families in the coming days, I ask you to reach out to those who ache for sons and daughters who are never coming home,” Bush said.
Virginia Tech President Charles Steger received a 30-second standing ovation, despite the criticism of the school administration.
With classes canceled for the rest of the week, many students left town in a hurry, lugging pillows, sleeping bags and backpacks down the sidewalks.
Jessie Ferguson, 19, a freshman from Arlington, Va., headed for her car with tears streaming down her cheeks.
“I’m still kind of shaky,” she said. “I had to pump myself up just to kind of come out of the building. I was going to come out, but it took a little bit of ‘OK, it’s going to be all right. There’s lots of cops around.’”
She added: “I just don’t want to be on campus.”
Stories of heroism and ingenuity emerged Tuesday.
Dr. Liviu Librescu, an Israeli engineering and math lecturer, was killed after he was said to have protected his students’ lives by blocking the doorway of his classroom from the gunman. And one student, an Eagle Scout, probably saved his own life by using an electrical cord as a tourniquet around his bleeding thigh, a doctor reported.
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