Va. Tech Shooting: Portrait of a Killer

Anna Brown recognized the face immediately. Working her shift at the Inn at Virginia Tech on Tuesday morning, she saw a TV screen flash a photograph of Cho Seung-Hui, the student accused of slaughtering at least 32 students on campus before killing himself. Brown, 23, recalled Cho as the eerie introvert from her playwriting class last semester. He never spoke, always looked down and sat as far away from the professor as possible. "He just sat there," she says. "He was expressionless.... He was just off, in a very creepy way." Brown even used to kid with her friends after class that he was "the kind of guy who might go on a rampage killing."

But what really jarred Brown were Cho's writings. As part of the workshop, students critiqued each other's assignments. She recalls one of Cho's in particular that featured a boy filled with rage at his pedophile stepfather, who molests him. The play, which was obtained by The Smoking Gun, was titled "Richard McBeef." In it, the boy, 13-year-old John, reacts with disgust when his stepfather, Richard, rests his hand on John's lap. "I will not be molested by an aging balding overweight pedophilic stepdad named Dick!" says John. "Get your hands off me you sicko!" What follow are venomous, profanity-laced exchanges between John and Richard, as John's mother tries unsuccessfully to defuse the situation. "I hate him," John says to himself later in his room, throwing darts at a picture of his stepfather. "Must kill Dick. Must kill Dick. Dick must die. Kill Dick." The play ends with John trying to shove a banana cereal bar down Richard's throat and Richard responding with a "deadly blow."

Brown wasn't the only one who was uncomfortable. The English Department faculty grew sufficiently concerned about Cho's writing and antisocial behavior that they contacted university counselors and school police. (One faculty member, who requested anonymity because the university has asked professors not to talk to the press about the shootings, says he believes Blacksburg's police department was also contacted. When asked whether school administrators or faculty had ever talked to the force about Cho, Lt. Bruce Bradbery, a spokesman for the Blacksburg force, said "not that I'm aware of.")

The portrait gradually emerging of Cho is of a withdrawn and troubled soul. An immigrant from South Korea, Cho, 23, arrived in the U.S. via Detroit in 1992. He was a legal permanent resident who renewed his green card in 2003. He was in his senior year at Virginia Tech, where he was an English major. His parents, who live in a beige-paneled row house in Centreville, Va., outside Washington, D.C., seemed similarly withdrawn. Neighbors there say the couple mostly kept to themselves, possibly because of their limited English. "We just got the occasional wave," says neighbor Marshall Main, who saw the family leave on Monday night after a lengthy visit from police. Another neighbor, Adele Higgins, said that Cho's parents "seemed friendly" and would sometimes nod hello, but "we never carried on a conversation."

Cho himself, however, seldom seemed to extend himself even that far, according to people at Virginia Tech interviewed by NEWSWEEK. An English professor who taught him said Cho attended class regularly, always wearing drab clothes and a baseball cap that seemed to offer him a sort of protective cover. He never seemed to interact with other students. Rather than comment verbally about his peers' works, he would only do so in writing. His own work was "very adolescent" and "silly," with attempts at "slapstick comedy" and "elements of violence," says this professor, who declined to be named because the English department asked professors not to speak to the press. "What was disturbing was that he wouldn't speak," the professor says. "I tried to make him laugh. I would try to loosen him up, put an arm around his shoulder. But this kid was not going to speak. That was an unusual sign."

The professor reported his concerns to administrators in the English department, he says. He wasn't the first: Cho had been a topic of discussion among the faculty for some time. "He was referred by the English department to counselors," says the professor. And "according to the director of the program, the police were also notified ... It was obvious that he was troubled." (A Virginia Tech spokesperson said that the university and its police department wouldn't comment outside of official news conferences.)

Cho's roommate at Harper Hall, Joe Aust, also found Cho unsettling. Though the two had lived together all year, Cho was "extremely antisocial" and offered only monosyllabic responses to questions, says Aust, 19. "I would see him walking to class and I would say 'hey' to him and he wouldn't even look at me," says Aust. Cho didn't appear to have any friends or a girlfriend, as far as Aust could see. He didn't hang out much in the room, but when he did, it was often in silence as he downloaded music. Cho kept his part of the room sterile and austere, with no decorations. Another possibly telling observation: Cho was on medication, says Aust, who couldn't determine exactly what it was for. But Aust saw no signs that Cho had a gun or a penchant for firearms.

By the time Aust woke up Monday morning to make his 9 a.m. class, he says, Cho was gone. Aust didn't return to his room until noon. When Cho failed to show up that evening, he didn't find it strange, since his roommate didn't spend a lot of time at the dorm. But when the police showed up on Monday night and explained who they thought his roommate was, Aust was flabbergasted. He says police took all of Cho's belongings, along with Aust's laptop. "I'm still a little shocked," said Aust on Tuesday, as he packed his things to head home for a while. Many of those who encountered Cho during his years at Virginia Tech are surely just as shaken.

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