BLACKSBURG, Va. — Long before he killed 32 people in the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, Seung-Hui Cho was bullied by fellow high school students who mocked his shyness and the strange way he talked, former classmates said.
Cho, 23, a senior English major at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, killed 32 people in two attacks before taking his own life Monday. He sent a large multi-media package outlining his grievances against religion and the wealthy to NBC News, but police said Thursday that the material added little to their investigation.
The text, photographs and video in the package bristle with hatred toward unspecified people whom Cho, a South Korean immigrant, accused of having wronged him, adding to a portrait of a solitary man who rarely, if ever, managed normal social interactions.
Chris Davids, a Virginia Tech student who graduated with Cho from Westfield High School in Chantilly, Va., in 2003, recalled that Cho almost never opened his mouth and would ignore attempts to strike up a conversation.
Once, in an English class, the teacher had the students read aloud and, when it was Cho’s turn, he just looked down in silence, Davids recalled in an interview with The Associated Press.
Finally, after the teacher threatened to give him a failing grade for participation, Cho started to read in a strange, deep voice that sounded “like he had something in his mouth,” Davids said.
“As soon as he started reading, the whole class started laughing and pointing and saying, ‘Go back to China,’” Davids said.
Among Cho’s victims were Reema Samaha and Erin Peterson, who both graduated from Westfield High School last year. Police said it was not clear whether Cho singled them out.
‘The question mark kid’
Virginia Tech student Alison Heck said a suitemate of hers on campus found a mysterious question mark scrawled on the dry erase board on her door. The young woman went to the same high school as Cho, according to her Facebook page.
Cho once scrawled a question mark on the sign-in sheet on the first day of a literature class, and other students came to know him as “the question mark kid.”
“I don’t know if she knew that it was him for sure,” Heck said. “I do remember that that fall that she was being stalked and she had mentioned the question mark. And there was a question mark on her door.”
Heck added: “She just let us know about it just in case there was a strange person walking around our suite.”
The young woman could not immediately be located for comment, via e-mail or telephone.
The focus Thursday slowly began turning away from the multimedia package Cho sent to NBC News on Monday after Col. Steven Flaherty, superintendent of the Virginia State Police, said the material added little to the investigation.
After killing two people in a Virginia Tech dormitory — but before he slaughtered 30 more in a classroom building, Cho mailed NBC News the long, profanity-laced diatribe along with dozens of photographs and videos, boasting: “When the time came, I did it. I had to.”
“While there was some marginal value to the package we received, the fact of the matter is ... the package merely confirms what we already knew,” Flaherty said in a brief statement Thursday.
Nation’s sympathy envelops college town
Most attention returned to Blacksburg, where authorities reported Thursday afternoon that eight people remained in the hospital. None of the patients was critically wounded, but doctors said some could face extensive rehabilitation.
They also said their hospitals were being overrun with flowers — so many that they asked sympathetic well-wishers to stop sending them. Flower shops around Blacksburg said they were overwhelmed with orders.
Virginia Tech officials, meanwhile, said the students who were killed Monday would be awarded posthumous degrees at commencement ceremonies May 11. Other students who may have been traumatized by the shootings could be allowed to end the semester without consequences, they said.
Exhausted university officials said they were determined to move forward to get Virginia Tech “back up on its feet and running again,” in the words of Larry Hincker, the school’s chief spokesman, who has become a familiar face to Americans riveted to television coverage of the shootings.
“We have got to move forward,” Hincker said Thursday afternoon. “We cannot let this horror define Virginia Tech.”
Many question NBC’s handling of package
Elsewhere, journalists, law enforcement officials and ordinary Americans debated NBC’s decision to broadcast Cho’s hate-filled material and to publish more of it on MSNBC.com.
Flaherty said he appreciated NBC’s cooperation with investigators, but he said he was “rather disappointed in the editorial decision to broadcast these disturbing images.”
NBC News President Steve Capus said Thursday on NBC’s TODAY program that he understood that many people would disagree with his decision. But “ever since we heard the first reports about what happened on that campus, we all wanted to know — and I’m not sure we’ll ever fully understand — why this happened, but I do think this is as close as we’ll come to having a glimpse inside the mind of a killer,” he said.
The network said in a statement that it would limit its use of the video “across NBC News, including MSNBC, to no more than 10 percent of our airtime.”
Gunman’s message hits campus
In the 1,800-word manifesto-like statement , Cho expresses rage, resentment and a desire to get even — with whom, he does not say. It mentions “martyrs like Eric and Dylan” — apparently a reference to Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the teenagers who killed 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., eight years ago this Friday.
Virginia Tech students and their families reacted with disgust and disbelief , as well as with anger at NBC.
“I have some friends that survived in classrooms next door,” Susan Ivins, a Virginia Tech student, told NBC News. “And just knowing that they could have seen this man holding a gun to their face like that, it just breaks my heart.”
Gabrielle Minnich, a Virginia Tech graduate who has worked at the school since 1990, said she tried to avoid seeing the video release from Cho.“I’ve seen little clips, and I’ve turned away, because I don’t think we need to focus on that,” Minnich told MSNBC.com. “I’m sorry it happened, because it’s just prolonging the whole process we have to go through.”
Behind an impromptu memorial to Cho’s 32 victims on the campus drill field, a 2- by 2-foot orange cardboard sign was affixed to a wall in front of Burruss Hall overnight reading, “VT stay strong, Media Stay Away.”
Michael and Peggy Herbstritt, the parents of Jeremy Herbstritt, who died in Monday’s shootings, were scheduled to be interviewed Thursday morning on TODAY, but they canceled their appearance after the material was aired.
An MSNBC.com message board was inundated with thousands of posts. Some of the responses praised the network for bringing Cho’s mental illness graphically to light, but most castigated NBC for seeming to give Cho the attention he wanted.
Why wasn’t he stopped?
But predominantly, the discussion in Blacksburg was about how Cho could have slipped through the fingers of teachers, administrators and mental health professionals, all of whom raised red flags about him at one time or another.
Cho had been removed from one of his classes because he so frightened his teacher and classmates with his odd behavior and his violent, blood-drenched writings. He was referred to campus police by two women who were creeped out by his messages to them. And he was ordered to submit to psychiatric evaluation by a Virginia magistrate.
And yet, a psychiatrist who examined Cho found that he was not a danger to others, and he was never effectively intercepted along the way to his terrible rampage Monday.
“I think it’s crazy” that there are no stronger procedures for dealing with seriously troubled students, said Lucinda Roy, a co-director of creative writing at Virginia Tech, who tutored Cho after he was kicked out of a creative writing class in fall 2005.
“I think there needs to be a change,” Roy said in an interview with NBC News. “We must intervene, and that is all there is to it.”
Speaking during an appearance at a high school in Ohio, President Bush said the shootings were a reminder that people must be willing to raise red flags about others’ disturbing behavior.
“One of the lessons of these tragedies is to make sure that when people see somebody or know somebody who is exhibiting abnormal behavior, you do something about it, to suggest that somebody take a look,” he said. “If you are a parent and your child is, you know, doing strange things on the Internet, pay attention to it and not be afraid to ask for help and not be afraid to say, ‘I am concerned about what I am seeing.’ ”
Detention order issued
As early as November 2005, police and school administrators were wrestling with what to do with Cho, who was accused of sending inappropriate messages to two female students and was sent to a mental health facility after police obtained a temporary detention order.
Cho was referred to the university’s disciplinary system, but campus Police Chief Wendell Flinchum said the women declined to press charges, and the case apparently never reached a hearing.
However, after the second incident, the department received a call from an acquaintance of Cho’s, who was concerned that he might be suicidal, Flinchum said. Police obtained a temporary detention order from a local magistrate, and in December of that year, Cho was briefly admitted to Carilion St. Albans Behavioral Health Center in Radford.
A doctor’s report obtained by NBC News concluded that while Cho could pose a threat to himself, he posed no threat to others. Cho was released.
One lingering question was answered Thursday when the owner of an Internet gun store said one of the weapons Cho used was purchased from his Web site.
Authorities had already established that Cho bought one of his weapons, a Glock 9mm handgun, at a gun shop near the university. And they knew that he took delivery of the second, a .22-caliber Walther P-22, at a nearby pawnbroker.
Thursday, Eric Thompson, the owner of the Gun Source, based in Green Bay, Wis., said Cho bought that gun through his site. He said he had no idea his business was involved until he was contacted Tuesday by telephone by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
“I just feel absolutely terrible that this tragedy even happened in the first place,” Thompson told the AP on Thursday. “I have three children in the first place, and it’s just an absolute tragedy.”
Alex Johnson, Petra Cahil and Bill Dedman of MSNBC.com; Pete Williams, Jim Popkin and Steve Handelsman of NBC News; and The Associated Press contributed to this report.