Cho Seung-Hui was a solitary young man armed with two guns and a grudge about something or someone — what or who exactly is still not clear. It's been hard to find anyone who knew the killer intimately. But we have found people who crossed paths with him, including the owner of the gunshop where he bought a weapon.
The gunman’s trip from obscurity to the front page and to the lips of every news anchor in the country started this morning with the announcement by Virginia Tech campus police.
But the bigger question for now is just who was Cho Seung-Hui? What drove him to such madness?
His family moved to the U.S. from South Korea when Cho has a child. They settled in Centreville, Virginia, an hour outside Washington DC. Neighbors told us they didn’t know much about the family.
Cho was in his senior year as an English major at Virginia Tech, where details about his troubled life are emerging.
English teacher Lucinda Roy remembers her student and says she was troubled by the violent tone in his writings, and tried to talk to him about it. “If you asked him something there was sometimes a 20 second pause before he would respond. He always wore sunglasses and a hat,” says Roy. “You couldn’t really see his face.”
Some of that writing ended up in screenplays. A fellow screenwriting student described him as “the exact stereotype of what one would typically think of as a ‘school shooter’—a loner, obsessed with violence, and serious personal problems. Some of us in class tried to talk to him to be nice and get him out of his shell, but he refused talking to anyone.”
And there may have been warnings. Reportedly, investigators say Cho had recently shown signs of violent behavior including stalking women and allegedly setting fire in a dorm room.
36 days ago, Cho bought a gun at a shop in Roanoke, Virginia, a Glock 19.
I spoke with the owner of Roanoke Firearms this afternoon.
Chris Hansen, Dateline correspondent: 36 days ago today, Cho came into your store and bought a handgun. Tell me what happened.
John, owns gun store: Typical sale. Since he was a resident alien, he had to have 3 forms of ID, so he produced a Va. Driver’s license that established residency. He showed a checkbook that matched, and he had his INS card which was current. We did a background check, he cleared the state police and the federal computers and was able to take the gun with him
Hansen: What gun was it that he bought?
John: A Glock 19, 9mm
Hansen: How did he pay?
John: With a credit card.
Hansen: Did he buy ammo to go with it?
John: He bought one box of practice ammunition.
Hansen: And how many bullets would be in a box like that?
Hansen: Did he make your employee suspicious in any way?
John: Oh, no. not at all. Typical, clean-cut college kid.
Hansen: What is it like for you to know this guy purchased gun at your store?
John: I can’t even begin to describe how I feel. One death would have been to many. This is horrible.
Gun sales in Virginia have been more than a sticking point with gun control advocates, not to mention New York City.
NBC News analyst Michael Sheehan oversaw counterterrorism for the New York City Police Department and says many guns bought in Virginia end up on New York streets. He says it's too easy to buy a hand gun in Virginia.
“[If you have] simple identification and enough money, you’re gonna walk out [of the store] with a handgun and ammunition,” says Sheehan.
NBC obtained video shot in Virginia by investigators sent by the New York Mayor’s office, showing just how easy it may have been for Cho to buy a gun.
The investigator used a Virginia resident to purchase a gun that was clearly meant for someone else. That’s a violation of the law.
In the Virginia Tech case, Cho purchased that 9mm legally. Warlier, in February he bought a 22-caliber handgun at a local Blacksburg, Virginia pawn shop.
At 7:15 on Monday he apparently made his way to West Ambler Johnston Hall.
Law enforcement sources I spoke with today say they are still trying to figure out the exact relationship between Cho and of his first victims, the female freshman say he shot to death in her dormitory. Was she a target of his affection, the source of a perceived slight? Some in law enforcement say that Cho may have intended to commit all his killings in the dorm building, but changed his mind when he was confronted by a resident assistant, whom he also shot and killed.
Law enforcement sources say police were initially looking for the freshman’s current boyfriend because he was seen leaving the dorm. That may be why local authorities first suspected a straightforward domestic killing instead of a massacre-in-the-works.
It was some two hours after the first shootings that Cho walked into another campus building and killed 31 others.
What he did during those two hours is still a mystery but investigators believe he spent some of the time in his own dorm room reloading his weapons and perhaps leaving behind clues to his madness.
He reportedly left a note left in his dorm room, a note that included a litany of grievances against: “rich kids,” “debauchery,” and “deceitful charlatans” at Virginia Tech.
A search warrant describes finding a bomb threat at the scene “directed at engineering school department buildings.” The warrant goes on to say, “Norris Hall is an engineering-related building.” All this leads police to believe Cho was behind an earlier threat made three weeks before the shooting.
It was a shooting executed with such precision that it surprises the experts.
“It obviously shows his intent and purpose, and that he had a calm demeanor that he was able to pull off those rounds and had so many deadly hits with apparently very little training. It’s a very chilling prospect,” says Sheehan.
Cho Seung-Hui was a clearly disturbed and fractured personality. Only now that police have identified the shooter will a fully drawn portrait of this mass murderer begin to emerge.
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