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Va. Tech: Report from the Killer's Block

The police arrived a little before 11 on the night of the shootings. They piled into the Cho family's townhouse on Truitt Farm Drive in Centreville, gathered up several boxes of materials and left. The house has been sealed off ever since, the family, immigrants from South Korea who run a dry cleaning business, secreted away from the mob of fact-hunters.

There were more than 50 of us at one point yesterday, sniffing around on the block where Cho Seung Hui lived with his parents and sister. Camera crews, reporters, curious neighbors, police, all milling about, as if someone might emerge who could explain why 32 people are dead at Virginia Tech.

The only concrete bit of evidence anybody found was a rifle shell that a TV cameraman discovered in a parking space in front of the Cho townhouse. A Fairfax County police officer said it might have belonged to the shooter, or it might not.

Neighbors said Cho was a silent guy who didn't respond to routine greetings. Of course, any of us could say that about many, if not most, of our neighbors.

The mailman said he'd never delivered anything unusual to the house -- "no gun catalogues, I'd remember that," said Rod Wells, who seemed to enjoy his moment in the spotlight so well that he returned to be interviewed twice more in two hours. Quickly now, what might your mail carrier say when you get your moment in the news?

The front of the house -- a three-bedroom, attached unit assessed by Fairfax County at $404,510 -- was sealed up, blinds and curtains drawn tight. Squeezed into the postage-stamp back yard, two freshly mulched vegetable plots sprouted the first leaves of spring.

Nice family -- lots of smiles, very polite. Quiet street. Nothing ever happens here. One after another, the neighbors in the Sully Station II development dredged their memories and came up with the thinnest of passing moments.

"People come and go," said Doris Main, who has lived across from the Chos since the family arrived in 1999. "We're the only people home because we're the token senior citizens on the street. Everybody works. The only time you get to know people is when there's a big snowstorm."

It was after a snowstorm that Linda Liba, who also lives opposite the Cho family, came to appreciate the kindness of Cho Hyang, the shooter's mother. Mrs. Cho noticed that Liba was pregnant and urged her not to exert herself to clear the snow. Instead, Mrs. Cho had her husband brush off Liba's car.

"The family is very good," said Liba, 22, who is from Guatemala. She used to talk mainly to the Chos' daughter, a 2004 graduate of Princeton, who accompanied her parents as they left for work each morning at 7.

On Truitt Farm Drive, nobody knew anything about Seung Hui's writings, so lurid that his English professor referred him to counseling. Nobody knew about his guns. Nobody knew who his friends were, or what he was interested in, or what made him laugh.

No matter: The machinery of information grinds on. A TV reporter, on the phone from the sidewalk in front of the Cho house, informed his producer of his plans: "I don't care what they're going to do for visuals, I'm just going to blather my head off." His cameraman set up the shot.

By midafternoon, police had shooed the visitors away; the homeowners association decided it had had enough. Eight TV transmission trucks drove back up Sully Park Drive, toward streets so new they're not on many maps.

When police arrived Monday night, six cars zipping into the narrow lane, the neighbors had no idea that the Chos were in any way connected to the Virginia Tech shootings. The neighbors said they watched from behind the living room curtains or from their upstairs bedrooms or from a door opened just a crack.

Nobody went outside to have a look or ask a question.

By Marc Fisher |  April 18, 2007; 7:01 AM ET
Previous: Va Tech: How Pols and Lobbies Play the Tragedy | Next: The New Downtown: Spies, Cops and Fugitives


Please email us to report offensive comments.

I'm glad that my tax dollars are paying that mail carrier to read people's mail and prance around in front of the cameras. Hey buddy, use that energy to deliver the mail to the correct addresses!

Posted by: Anonymous | April 18, 2007 8:13 AM

I wonder how much of that writing might be due to his homelife, hmmm? What went on behind the doors of that residence on Truitt Farm Drive? I'm just saying.

Posted by: Stick | April 18, 2007 8:42 AM

Marc, your last line hit with the weight of a thousand pages. If it takes a village to raise a child, what happens to the child if the villagers ignore it?

Posted by: Arlington, VA | April 18, 2007 10:46 AM

To "Stick" - it's more likely that Cho suffered from extreme mental illness/depression. His older sister and parents seem well-adjusted members of society so please don't make their heartbreak and burden any worse than it already is. They will carry a sense of guilt and shame the rest of their lives. Sometimes tragedies cannot be explained or thwarted although people tried to get him help to no avail. May God comfort the families and friends of these victims - and yes, the Cho family are victims.

Posted by: Objective | April 18, 2007 10:52 AM

Stick: Those writings are a record of this man's deteriorating mental status. The graphic images and violent fantasies had more to do with his growing instability. If he was taking anti-depressant medications as it has been reported, the chemical manipulation appropriate or not, theraputic or not, could have been a larger contributing factor. If you review the pharmacetical literature with drugs like Prozac and others, you will find suicidal ideation listed as a side effect, however rare. Suppose for one instant that he was in the midst of a schizophenic or paranoid mental illness that was undiagnosed, common at his age, and inappropriately medicated with an anti-depressant which might worsen symptoms as opposed to improving them. He was living among the best and brightest minds on the campus of VTU who despite their growing concerns could not effect a change in the end result of his down spiral. I don't see this as a failure of his parents, or the academics, or even the gun shop owner who sold the gun. In my opinion, it is an odd mixture of living in a truely free society, the cost of such, and the inability or refusal to recognize, diagnose, and theraputically assist those in society who might pose it's greatest risk.

Posted by: Rebecca, RN | April 18, 2007 10:58 AM

Ok, we are learning more and more about this troubled individual. From the NBC4 web page (and the AP):

WASHINGTON -- Cho Seung-Hui, the 23-year-old student suspected of killing 32 people at Virginia Tech Monday, had been accused of stalking two female student in 2005 and had been taken to a mental health facility that year, according to police.

Campus Police Chief Wendell Flinchum said in November 2005 Cho made contact through phone calls and in person with a female student. The student called police but declined to press charges. Cho was referred to a disciplinary system, but Flinchum said the outcome was decided within the university and was outside of the scope of the police department.

The point is this: If the University had included the police department instead of "protecting the privacy rights" of the shooter the information would have been available during the background check required by law that is performed before you can buy a handgun. That information would have prevented the shooter from legally purchasing his weapons. Convicted felons, people with restraining orders, and people with a documented mental history of instability are not allowed to legally purchase handguns.

People all over the country are asking "What can we do to prevent this from happening again?" We now have one of the answers. The decision needs to be made ... do any of our recently elected Congresspeople have to b---s to make it?

Or are they willing to let more people die?

Posted by: SoMD | April 18, 2007 11:11 AM

SoMD, if the victim didn't want to press charges, what were the police supposed to do? If Cho hadn't been in college, he wouldn't have even gotten counseling, the police would've let him go and that would've been that. It seems like what you're suggesting is that everyone who gets in trouble in college should get a police record.

Posted by: Arlington, VA | April 18, 2007 12:00 PM

Please read the article on Cho and the possibility of being schizophrenic!!!

A Closer Look at the Minds of Mass Shooters
April 17, 2007 -- - Renowned forensic psychiatrist Michael Welner has examined some of the most notorious mass shooters of recent years. As details emerge about Seung-Hui Cho, the chairman of the Forensic Panel is following the case for ABC News and sharing his insights from his experience and current medical literature. Using the latest informaton, Welner believes the evidence strongly supports that Cho had paranoid schizophrenia....

Not enough has been released to tell for sure. Paranoia, in my professional experience, is the most important element to understand in the possible motives of mass shootings. Virtually all mass shooters are paranoid to some pathological degree. Some of them have suspicious personalities but otherwise maintain a connection to reality. Others have paranoid delusional disorder and have irrational and fixed false ideas about a particular theme. The most extreme of those with paranoia have schizophrenia, a condition that may be associated with intense hostility and different degrees of emotional and mental limitation and -- particularly important to mass shooting -- progressive and humiliating decline and alienation.....

Posted by: Anonymous | April 18, 2007 12:50 PM

Arlington, VA; Yes it is true the victim did not want to press charges, and as such, Cho would have no police record for that accusation. However, the documentation of the mental condition and the treatment he received would have been enough to prevent legally purchasing a handgun.

That is not a Virginia law either. The one week waiting period for purchasing a handgun is mandated by federal law to allow time to investigate the purchaser and determine if they are allowed to possess a handgun. If VT had reported the mental problem and the treatment Cho received he would not qualified to purchase the gun.

Posted by: SoMD | April 18, 2007 2:50 PM

SoMD, if VT had reported the mental problem and the treatment Cho received, it would have most likely violated privacy rights. People are entitled to the benefit of the doubt. Go back to law school.

Posted by: WB | April 18, 2007 8:17 PM

What Garbage!
Cho was schizophrenic, pure and simple. His actions had nothing, nothing, nothing to do with the neighborhood in which his parents now live. His sister went to Princeton, for crying out loud -- was she raised in a different "village"?
Of course his neighbors did not know him. He was (1) paranoid and reclusive, and (2) lived in Blacksburg for most of the last four years. Plus, who's going to admit that they're best friends with a mass murderer?
This is slander against all of the residents of that neighborhood.
As a teenager, I lived in a neighborhood with a similarly well-publicized series of atrocities. My brothers and sisters and I felt personally smeared when the Washington Post attributed this serial killer's actions to the fact that: (1) he lived in our neighborhood, and (2) his parents were divorced. Nowadays, I guess they'd add with a sigh that "his mother worked." Of course, the Post talked to none of our neighbors, they just somehow knew these things (as in, made them up).
Even after the perpetrator was caught and jailed, friends were no longer allowed to come over. Adults would drop us off at the edge of the neighborhood, so they wouldn't have to come "in." Imagine how that makes a child or teenager feel about his or her personal safety and self-worth, and about the place they call home. I can tell you, the entire neighborhood not only shares an overwhelming sense of shock and fear and grief, they also share added unearned guilt because society at large mistakenly thinks they're somehow susceptible to similar outbursts of violence, simply because of where they live. This may be particularly painful for those who knew the Centreville victim.
Unless the Post can prove that there's something in the Centreville drinking water that caused Cho's schizophrenia, they should leave this neighborhood, its residents, its children, its young adults, its students, its parents, alone.

Posted by: VAB | April 18, 2007 11:35 PM

My questions: How did even get admitted to Virginia Tech? It sounds like he was equally reclusive in high school. Who wrote his recommendations? Any extracurriculars? What did his essay to get in look like?

Posted by: anonymous | April 19, 2007 7:21 AM

I find it incredibly hard to believe that if this man acted so strangely towards everyone else that he was completely "normal" at home. Sounds like the parents and sister were in a major case of denial. It is a shame and the blame has to be on the family as well as the systems that let him - and us down.

Posted by: Deborah | April 19, 2007 2:00 PM

50 reporters and Lord knows how many satellite trucks in a block of narrow town-house clones, all aimed at eliciting any kind of rumor about a family that had experienced an incredibly profound shock. What was missing, as usual, from the media pack: a sense of shame.

Posted by: Mike | April 19, 2007 3:07 PM

Look at the neighborhoods - two mass murderers in less than a year from the same place ?
Are these really healthy places to raise a child ? Nobody home, nowhere to play, no sense of community, kids warehoused; just vast emptiness and isolation ?
Will the Governor's panel look at the impact of these housing developments on a child's health ? How much do Littleton and Sully Station have in common ? What are the socioeconomic similarities ? Where are the adults in these children's lives ?

Posted by: Concerned parent | April 20, 2007 9:47 PM

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