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Police Uncover More Information About Virginia Tech Shooter

April 17, 2007 at 12:00 AM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: Twenty-four hours after the shootings, Virginia Tech’s police chief revealed the identity of the gunman.

CHIEF W.R. FLINCHUM, Virginia Tech Police Department: That person is Cho Seung-Hui. He was a 23-year-old South Korean here in the U.S. as a resident alien. Cho was enrolled as an undergraduate student in his senior year as an English major at Virginia Tech. Cho was in the U.S. with the residence established in Centerville, Virginia, and was living on campus in Harper Hall.

RAY SUAREZ: Harper Hall is adjacent to Ambler Johnston Hall, where the first shootings took place yesterday. Two people died there.

Authorities believe that Cho returned to his dorm room to reload following the first shootings, which occurred just after 7:00 a.m. He then proceed to Norris Hall, the engineering building, where most of the killing was done two hours later.

Cho, a South Korean immigrant, had permanent resident alien status. He was a green card holder. Cho’s family lives west of Washington, D.C., in Centerville, Virginia. He had graduated from high school in nearby Chantilly in 2003. Both communities are about 225 miles from Blacksburg.

Police said two handguns, a 9-millimeter and a .22-caliber, were found with Cho’s body. A receipt was found in his backpack for a Glock 9-millimeter pistol, like this one, purchased in March. Green card holders are permitted under federal law to purchase firearms if they have no felony convictions.

A crush of national and local news media descended on the gunman’s neighborhood today, but there was little in way of definitive information on the young man or his family.

JOURNALIST: Can you describe the family as you saw them throughout the years? Friendly? Connected?

MARSHALL MAIN, Neighbor of Cho Seung-Hui: Well, they’re very quiet. I didn’t know them at all. I don’t even know their name.

RAY SUAREZ: That seeming anonymity initially perplexed investigators and officials, as well.

VIRGINIA TECH OFFICIAL: The guy was a loner, and we’re having difficulty trying to find any information about him.

RAY SUAREZ: Two English professors were surprised they didn’t know the gunman.

JOURNALIST: Did you know the student?

TONY COLAIANNE, Professor, English Department: No, no, he wasn’t known to me.

JOURNALIST: Does that surprise you that you wouldn’t know a senior English student?

TONY COLAIANNE: Yes, I find it surprising. Our department is a pretty tight-knit community, you know, so we know our students fairly well. So this person was on the periphery, as far as I know.

'The sole gunman'

RAY SUAREZ: I talked earlier today to Marc Fisher of the Washington Post.

Marc Fisher, welcome. This morning, when authorities and the university identified the Virginia Tech student involved in the shootings, had they already established that he was the gunman in both attacks?

MARC FISHER, The Washington Post: That seems to be the case. They at least know that the same weapon was used in both attacks, and they're trying to piece together the other pieces of evidence that would conclude that he was the sole gunman.

RAY SUAREZ: Is there any information on a motive?

MARC FISHER: Well, there's just a rambling note that he left behind, which is a very angry screed against rich people, he talks about debauchery, and generally wealth in which he seems to be upset by. He also signed it with the same name that he wrote on his arm, Ismael-Ax, A-X. And the police don't seem to know quite yet what that means.

Cho Seung-Hui

RAY SUAREZ: What has emerged through the day about Cho Seung-Hui and his life in the U.S.? When did he come to this country?

MARC FISHER: He came with his parents. He was just 8 years old. His parents immigrated to the United States from South Korea in 1992. They run a dry cleaners in suburban North Virginia, in the town of Centerville, about 40 minutes outside of Washington, D.C.

His older sister is graduated from Princeton University just a couple of years ago, and they live in a house, a townhouse in a very new development in a part of the suburbs where many of the streets are not yet even on the maps yet.

RAY SUAREZ: Were there signs of emotional problems before yesterday?

MARC FISHER: There seemed to have been, especially at Virginia Tech. Some of the kids who were in classes with him referred to him as "question mark man," because in a British literature class, when all the other students introduced themselves to the professor by writing their name down on a sign-in sheet, he only listed a question mark. And when the professor asked him about that, he remained silent.

RAY SUAREZ: Did his teachers see in his work anything that bothered them about this young man?

MARC FISHER: Indeed. One of his English professors was very disturbed by a piece he did in a creative writing assignment, so disturbed that she referred him to counseling because of the content. We don't have that content, but it must have been quite extreme for a professor to take such a step.

Family's reaction

RAY SUAREZ: You mentioned that he comes from Centerville, Virginia. And that's near Dulles International Airport. Last night, the police made a visit to the Cho residence. What was that like?

MARC FISHER: Well, a number of police cars, both marked and unmarked, arrived late last night. And police went into the house, gathered up a bunch of materials, came out with a number of boxes. The family had either left with them or had been escorted away in the hours right before that, and they've gone into hiding since then.

What I found fascinating about this is that one neighbor after another told me about this and having witnessed this. And I asked them if they'd spoken to the police or if they'd found out anything more. And they said, oh, no, every single one of them had stayed inside their townhouse watching all this through an upstairs bedroom window or a living room curtain or even cracking their front door open a bit.

But it's a neighborhood where people generally do not know one another well at all, and not a single one of them felt bold enough to go outside to observe or ask a question.

Obtaining the weapons

RAY SUAREZ: Has it been established yet how Cho Seung-Hui got the guns he used in the attack?

MARC FISHER: One of them was purchased at a Roanoke gun store within the last weeks. The other one, the derivation is not quite clear.

RAY SUAREZ: And they're using the evidence of what was in his pack and so on as signs of premeditation so far?

MARC FISHER: It does appear that this was well-planned. There's some evidence that he had practiced at a shooting range. The guns had been purchased sometime before. The statement was lengthy and had been written before the events, so this does not appear to have been a crime of immediate passion.

RAY SUAREZ: Do we know if his troubles go back further? You mentioned signs of emotional upset during his time at Virginia Tech. Did anybody have anything to say in Centerville?

MARC FISHER: Well, they seemed to find him -- the neighbors, that is, seemed to find him the mysterious person in the family. They describe the parents and the sister as quite polite and quite friendly, willing to engage with neighbors, but they describe the son as someone who did not respond even to the most routine of greetings and generally stayed to himself. They did not recall any friends ever having been at the house.

RAY SUAREZ: Marc Fisher of the Washington Post, thanks for joining us.

MARC FISHER: Good to be with you.