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Menacing classroom presence

Wed., April 18, 2007

BLACKSBURG, Va. – They met across the professor’s desk. One on one. The chairman of the English department and the silent, brooding student who never took off his sunglasses. He had so upset other instructors that Virginia Tech officials asked if she wanted protection. Lucinda Roy declined. She thought Cho Seung-Hui exuded loneliness, and she volunteered to teach him by herself, to spare her colleagues. The subject of the class was poetry.

Roy, other officials, investigators, acquaintances and neighbors Tuesday helped fill in a dark portrait of the bespectacled young South Korean citizen who had sought bizarre expression in literature and then massacred 32 fellow students and teachers here Monday. As police closed in, he shot himself and was found on the floor of a classroom building with his weapons nearby.

Cho, of Centreville, Va., the son of immigrants who run a dry cleaning business and the brother of a State Department contractor who graduated from Princeton, was described as at times angry, menacing, disturbed and so depressed he seemed near tears.

He often spoke in a whisper, if at all, refused to open up to teachers and classmates, and kept himself locked behind a facade of a hat, sunglasses and silence.

Authorities still are not sure what set him off Monday, what propelled him as he stalked the halls and classrooms of Norris Hall with two semiautomatic pistols, chaining doors closed and murdering and maiming.

Authorities found two three-page notes in his dorm room after, but they weren’t suicide notes and provided no clue about why he did what he did. They were expletive-filled riffs against the rich and privileged, even naming people who he thought had kept him down, federal and state law enforcement sources said. Two officials said he had been treated for mental health problems.

Cho appears first to have alarmed the noted Virginia Tech poet Nikki Giovanni in a creative writing class in fall 2005. Cho took pictures of fellow students during class and wrote about death, she said in an interview. “Kids write about murder and suicide all the time. But there was something that made all of us pay attention closely. None of us were comfortable with that.”

Students once recited their poems in class. “It was like, ‘What are you trying to say here?’ It was more sinister,” she said.

Days later, seven of Giovanni’s 70 or so students, showed up for a class. She asked students why the others didn’t show up and was told they were afraid of Cho. “Once I realized my class was scared, I knew I had to do something,” she said.

She approached Cho and told him he needed to change the type of poems he was writing or drop her class. Giovanni said Cho declined to leave and said, “You can’t make me.”

Giovanni said she appealed to Roy, who then taught Cho one-on-one. Roy, 51, said she also urged Cho to seek counseling and told him that she would walk to the counseling center with him. He said he would think about it.

Roy said she warned school officials. “I was determined that people were going to take notice,” Roy said. “I felt I’d said to so many people, ‘Please, will you look at this young man?’ “

Roy, now the alumni distinguished professor of English and co-director of the creative writing program, said university officials were responsive and sympathetic but indicated that because Cho had made no direct threats, there was little they could do.

“I don’t want to be accusatory or blaming other people,” Roy said. “I do just want to say, though, it’s such a shame if people don’t listen very carefully and if the law constricts them so that they can’t do what is best for the student.”

Cho wrote poems, a novel and two plays, acquaintances and officials said, in addition to the rambling multipage “manifesto” directed against the rich, the spoiled and the world in general that police found in his room.

Paul Kim, a senior English major, said Cho was so withdrawn that he did not know “we had a Korean person who was in the English department and was male until I met him in class.”

“He never spoke a word,” Kim said. “Even when the professor asked questions, he never spoke. He constantly looked physically and emotionally down, like he was depressed. I had a strong feeling to talk to him on the first day of class, but I didn’t get to talk to him because he sat right beside the door and as soon as class was over he left.”

For Kim, one detail stood out. The classroom was rectangular. The class was split in half with one half of the class facing the other. “I always sat directly across, looking directly at him,” Kim said. “He never looked up.”

Kim said he might have seen signs of Cho’s deterioration: He disappeared from class.

“For the past month, he stopped coming,” Kim said.

Charlotte Peterson, a former Virginia Tech student, said she shared a British literature class with Cho in 2005. On the first day, when the instructor asked students to write their names on a sheet of paper and hand it up, Cho wrote a question mark.

“Even the teacher laughed at him,” Peterson said. “Nobody understood him.”

In his Centreville community, residents recalled him as a strange young man.

Abdul Shash, who lives next door to the Chos, said Cho never seemed to have any friends.

“If you walk and you come close to him, he’d walk away,” Shash said. “I have kids, and he never talked to them.”

Shash described Cho’s parents as quiet, modest and hardworking people, who seemed devoted to helping their son. During his years at Virginia Tech, his parents regularly shuttled him to and from Blacksburg, more than four hours each way.

Cho graduated from Westfield High School in Chantilly in 2003. He turned 23 on Jan. 18 and had lived as a legal permanent resident since entering the United States through Detroit on Sept. 2, 1992, when he was 8 years old, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Cho held a green card through his parents, and he renewed it Oct. 27, 2003, according to Homeland Security. He listed his residence as Centreville.

Investigators said Cho procured one of the guns he used in the rampage, a Walther .22, on Feb. 9 from a pawnshop on Main Street in Blacksburg near the Virginia Tech campus.

On March 16, he bought the second gun, a 9mm Glock 19, from Roanoke Firearms, a gun shop on Cove Road in Roanoke.

He used his driver’s license as identification and had no problem buying the guns because he was complying with Virginia law, which permits the purchase of one gun a month, investigators said.

A surveillance tape, which has now been watched by federal agents, caught Cho buying the Glock, sources said. Both guns are semiautomatic, which means a round is fired for every finger pull.

Cho reloaded several times, using 15-round magazines for the Glock and 10-round magazines for the Walther, investigators said.


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