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Report weaves dark tale of gunman's past

Va. Tech officials and police are criticized for mistakes before and during his rampage.

August 31, 2007|Johanna Neuman and Tina Marie Macias | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Seung-hui Cho drifted in silence through four years of high school and his first year in college, all but lost in the throng.

But as a sophomore, he discovered his place in life: He would be a writer.

During the summer break, he had spent hours writing manuscripts. He changed his major to English. And he submitted a book proposal to a New York publisher, "sort of like Tom Sawyer except that it's really silly and pathetic," he explained in an e-mail to one professor.

Rather than provide a path out of his troubled world, though, his writing ambition brought disappointment, followed by a downward spiral of bizarre behavior. It culminated in a bloody massacre on the Virginia Tech campus in which Cho killed 32 students and teachers before turning the gun on himself.

The shootings April 16 prompted universities across the country to tighten their security alert systems.

In the most comprehensive report to date of the shootings, a panel appointed by Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine faulted the decision by authorities not to issue a campuswide notification after the first two students were killed in a dorm, two hours before the deadly rampage in the classrooms of Norris Hall.

The report also faulted the Virginia Tech Police Department for prematurely concluding that the initial shooting was an incident of domestic violence, spending hours tracking and interviewing "a person of interest" who was not involved, while Cho regrouped and reloaded for the later, deadlier assault.

"The failure to give notice in a prompt fashion was a clear error," Kaine said in a news conference discussing the results of the four-month study. "That could have made a difference in this particularly tragedy, but it probably wouldn't have averted the tragedy."

Kaine said that what really might have made the difference was "connecting some of the mental health dots." The report noted that school officials and others did not share information on Cho's behavior because they believed federal privacy laws banned any disclosure of a student's mental health records. Kaine said that may have been too strict an interpretation of the law.

Tracy Littlejohn, a Virginia Tech graduate from Simi Valley whose cousin Erin Peterson was killed by Cho, said Thursday that she wished more could have been done to alert students after the first shooting. "I cannot say that Erin would not have died that day, but she would have at least had the information about her safety." Littlejohn said. "She was sitting in French class. She had no idea."

Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger said it was "painful to hear the blunt and, in some cases, critical findings" of the report. But, he added, "no one at this university had any foreknowledge of his mental health problems."

Laid out in painstaking detail by the panel, which interviewed more than 200 individuals and pored over thousands of pages of documents, the tortured saga of Seung-hui Cho reads like a life-long primal scream.

The signs of trouble in Cho's life were clear almost from the beginning.

Born in Seoul, South Korea, Cho developed whooping cough as a baby, and doctors suspected a hole in his heart. When he was 3, a medical procedure performed on him, believed to be an echocardiograph or a cardiac catheterization, was so traumatic that Cho developed a lifelong fear of being touched.

When he was 9, the family moved to Fairfax County, Va., so that Cho and his older sister, Sun-kyung, would have access to a better education. Despite problems communicating -- no one in the family spoke English when they arrived -- Cho seemed to be adjusting. He enrolled in a tae kwon do program, watched television and played video games such as Sonic the Hedgehog.

But he said very little. Sometimes his mother would get so frustrated at his silence she would shake him. If asked to respond to a visitor, he would "develop sweaty palms, become pale, freeze and sometimes cry."

By the time he was in the sixth grade, he had grown withdrawn and uncommunicative. Teachers recommended therapy, and the Chos "overcame several obstacles to get their son the help he needed," alternating absences from their dry cleaning business to drive him to weekly sessions.

In the eighth grade, an art therapist noticed that his paintings were growing darker. After the murders at Columbine High School in 1999, Cho wrote what officials deemed "a disturbing paper" for his English class expressing thoughts of suicide and homicide, saying he wanted "to repeat Columbine." The school contacted Cho's sister, who reported the incident to their parents. Cho was sent to a psychiatrist.

The doctor diagnosed Cho as having depression and "selective mutism" -- an anxiety disorder marked by the inability to speak in certain social situations. He prescribed an antidepressant, paroxetine, which Cho took for almost a year. The drug appeared to help. He seemed to be in a good mood, looked brighter and smiled more.

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