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A puzzling start to a deadly day

Police followed one lead after 2 were found dead. They had no clue of what was to come.

April 18, 2007|Erika Hayasaki, Richard Fausset and Adam Schreck | Times Staff Writers

BLACKSBURG, VA. — It was still dark at 5:30 a.m., when Karan Grewal bumped into his roommate in the bathroom of their suite in Virginia Tech's Harper Hall. Grewal had been up all night studying, but he knew better than to grumble to Seung-hui Cho.

None of the guys in the suite talked to Cho. They'd tried, at first, but Cho never answered; he rarely responded even to a simple "Hi." His roommates figured he didn't speak much English.

On this blustery Monday, Cho was in boxer shorts and a T-shirt, getting ready for the day. Grewal, 21, washed up and went back to his bedroom to get some rest. He fell asleep about 7 a.m.

Twelve hours later, police would come knocking.


The 911 call came in at 7:15 a.m: gunshots at a college dorm.

Campus police rushed to West Ambler Johnston Hall, a century-old stone building on the east side of the expansive campus. On the fourth floor, they found two bodies.

There was no weapon and no sign of the gunman. There was also little panic. Several of the nearly 900 students in the coed dorm said they slept through the gunfire. Some noticed police outside; a few heard ambulance sirens. But many went about their morning as usual, bundling up in warm clothes as they headed off to class in the swirling snow.

Heather Haugh, who had been off campus for the weekend, walked up to the dorm shortly before 7:30 a.m. She was planning to meet her roommate, Emily Hilscher, to walk to chemistry class with her. But police pulled her aside at the door.

That interview would shape the terrible day that followed.

Investigators told Haugh, 18, that her roommate had been shot. They began asking about Hilscher's romances. Haugh told them what she knew: Her roommate had spent the weekend on another college campus with her boyfriend, Karl Thornhill.

The police asked about guns; Haugh told them Thornhill had recently taken both girls to a shooting range for fun. She told police she believed he kept the weapons at his home in Blacksburg.

Though Haugh described her roommate as having "a perfect relationship with her boyfriend," investigators suspected the shooting was prompted by a lovers' quarrel. They relayed their theory to university administrators at an 8:25 a.m. meeting. By then, classes were already underway, and President Charles W. Steger saw no need to cancel them. "We had no reason to suspect any other incident was going to occur," he said.

Investigators, meanwhile, had tracked down Thornhill, pulling him over as he was driving off campus. He raised their suspicion at once by contradicting Haugh's account. His guns were not at his home, he said; he had taken them to his parents' house in Boston, Va., about 370 miles away. He also denied that he and Hilscher had spent the weekend at Longwood University in Farmville, about 140 miles from Blacksburg.

Campus Police Det. Stephanie Henley requested a search warrant for a residence believed to be linked to Thornhill. She was looking, she wrote, for "firearms, ammunition, bloody clothing ... "

Murky motive

Authorities are as yet unwilling to clear Thornhill; he "remains a person of interest," according to the state police superintendent, Col. Steven Flaherty.

But Flaherty also said it's "reasonable to assume" that Cho committed the murders at Ambler Johnston Hall. Why he may have targeted that dorm, that room, is murky. There's no evidence that he knew Hilscher. He was a 23-year-old English major, a taciturn loner; she was an upbeat 19-year-old studying animal sciences, so close to her family that she called her mother every day.

If Cho had planned a massacre, he had ample opportunity to shoot other victims; the dorm was filled with sleeping students. But only one other student, 22-year-old senior Ryan Clark, was shot in the dorm, known as AJ. Then the gunman fled.

Nearly 2 1/2 hours later, Cho turned up in Norris Hall, a science and engineering building half a mile from AJ. He was armed with two handguns, one of them the weapon used to kill Hilscher and Clark in the dorm.

His face was still, expressionless, as he methodically began to kill.

'Unremarkable' gun sale

Cho bought one gun, a .22-caliber Walther P22, in February, at a pawnshop on Main Street.

The other he purchased March 12 at Roanoke Firearms, about 40 miles away.

The gun shop is in a cream-colored brick building, set up against the Blue Ridge Mountains, with the words: "Protection -- Service -- Training" etched on the door. Inside, guns of every description, price tags dangling, are displayed in glass cases. A bumper sticker on the wall urges: "Buy a gun for America."

Cho bought a Glock 9-millimeter pistol here for $535, 30 rounds of ammunition included.

As required by law, he presented identification: a Virginia driver's license, checks that matched the address on the license, and a federal immigration card to prove he was a legal U.S. resident. He passed a background check and left the store with his gun.

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