17 Facts about Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech Shooter

On April 16, 2007, Seung-Hui Cho, 23, a senior at Virginia Tech, shot and killed 32 and wounded 17 others in two separate attacks before committing suicide. If you want to learn more about what happened during the Virginia Tech shooting or what drove the shooter, read on for 17 facts you need to know about Seung-Hui Cho.

What actually happened on April 16, 2007, when Seung-Hui Cho committed one of the most tragic mass school shootings in the U.S. to date? What drove him to commit the Virginia Tech shooting? We look at these questions and uncover 17 facts about Seung-Hui Cho and the Virginia Tech massacre that you might not be aware of.

1. April 16, 2007: Emily Hilscher Was First to Be Shot

On a gusty, snowing morning in April 2007, seemingly out of nowhere, Seung-Hui Cho carried out one of the deadliest shooting rampages in American history. Before April 16, 2007 came to an end, Seung-Hui Cho murdered 32 and wounded 17 before taking his own life on the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University campus in Blacksburg, Virginia.

At around 7:15 a.m., Cho entered the West Ambler Johnston Hall dormitory and walked into room 4040, the residence of 19-year-old freshman Emily Hilscher, and shot her dead. Ryan Clark, a resident assistant, came out of his room to investigate the noise; he too was shot to death.

Read about the victims here: The 2007 Virginia Tech Shooting Victims: 32 Lives Lost in the Massacre

The shooter quietly left the housing block.

The local police department got a call about a disturbance; maybe someone falling out of bed. It soon became apparent it was more than that. But no one could have imagined what was coming. Two hours later, Cho opened fire in Norris Hall, a classroom building across campus, killing 30 more.

Cho Seung-Hui

Photo: Virginia Tech via Getty Images

2. Campus Police Pin Killings on Lovers’ Quarrel

Police at the scene spoke to Hilscher’s roommate, Heather Haugh, who showed up at 7:30 to meet Hilscher and walk with her to class. She told officers that Hilscher had a boyfriend, Karl Thornhill, who was a senior at nearby Radford University. Hilscher spent the weekend with him, and he dropped her off at her dorm that morning.

Haugh also told police that Thornhill owned guns and was at a shooting range two weeks earlier. Based on that information, police concluded that her death was the result of a lovers’ quarrel. So they went looking for Thornhill and found him driving home from class.

As expected, they spent valuable time interrogating the wrong man.

3. Seung-Hui Cho Sent Video to NBC Between First and Second Shootings

The so-called “lover’s quarrel” provided Seung-Hui Cho with more than enough time to carry out the rest of his plans. He returned to his own dorm room, re-armed himself, removed his computer’s hard drive (which has never been found), changed his clothes, and left behind a long and disturbing note.

In the note, Cho wrote, “You caused me to do this.” Who “you” may be is open for debate.

He left his dorm, and before the second attack, he went to a nearby post office and mailed a package to NBC News in New York. The package was supposed to be received on April 17, but it arrived a day late because Cho used an incorrect ZIP code and street address. The postage was $14.40. It was time stamped at 9:01 a.m.

The package contained an 1,800-word manifesto, 27 QuickTime videos showing Cho talking to the camera, and 43 photographs.

In the video, which is essentially a confession, Cho railed against the wealthy, Christianity, and even referenced Columbine school shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.

“This is it. This is where it all ends. End of the road. What a life it was.”

“I did it for them. I did it to make you stop what you did to me. The future generations of the weak and defenseless.”

“Like Moses, I split the sea and lead my people, the weak, the defenseless, the innocent children of all ages.”

Railing against the wealthy, and presumably other unnamed enemies, Cho added, “You had everything you wanted. Your Mercedes wasn’t enough, you brats. Your golden necklaces weren’t enough, you snobs. Your trust fund wasn’t enough. Your vodka and cognac weren’t enough. All your debaucheries weren’t enough. Those weren’t enough to fulfill your hedonistic needs. You had everything.”

Cho also included a number of photos he probably took of himself. In the first two, Cho is seen smiling. The rest, though, show Cho looking stern, aiming his handguns at the camera or at nothing. There is a photo of him with a hammer, and another of bullets standing, lined up.

4. Cho Opened Fire on Norris Hall, Killing 30

With all the time in the world, Cho entered Norris Hall at 9:40 a.m., chained the three main doors of the “L”-shaped building shut to prevent anyone from escaping, and climbed the stairs to the second floor and the classrooms. The second period had just began.

According to forensic evidence, the stairs Cho took came up into the short end of the “L,” where there were seven classrooms. Two were vacant. Five were in session: Rooms 204, 205, 206, 207, and 211.

The Virginia Tech killer barged into four of them with his gun drawn. Over the next 15 minutes, Cho fired off more than 175 rounds and killed 30 people. Witnesses say he was stone-faced as he fired.

Fifteen minutes later, 30 people were dead and 17 wounded.

The last killings took place in room 211. Eleven students, along with one teacher, Jocelyn Couture-Nowak, a French instructor from Montreal, died.

Police found Cho’s body in the stairwell; he had shot himself in the head.

Virginia Tech

Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

5. Virginia Tech Sent out Late E-mails Urging Caution

Many questions have been raised about how Virginia Tech responded to the shootings. Why did administrators not cancel classes after the first shootings? They were thought to have been a result of a lovers’ quarrel, but what if police were wrong and it wasn’t? And what if the shooter hadn’t left campus?

We now know it wasn’t a lovers’ quarrel, and that cliché allowed Seung-Hui Cho to carry out one of the largest shooting rampages in American history.

In fact, it took the school more than two hours to e-mail students and warn them about the first incident. The first e-mail was not sent until 9:26 a.m–but few got it. Less than an hour later, the second shooting was over, and 30 more Virginia Tech victims were dead.

—–Original Message—–
Subject: Shooting on campus.

A shooting incident occurred at West Amber Johnston earlier this morning.

Police are on the scene and are investigating.

The university community is urged to be cautious and are asked to contact Virginia Tech Police if you observe anything suspicious or with information on the case. Contact Virginia Tech Police at 231-6411.

Stay attuned to the www.vt.edu. We will post as soon as we have more information.

9:50 a.m., Virginia Tech sent out a second e-mail advising all to stay inside. But Cho had already begun his second rampage.

—–Original Message—–
Subject: PLease stay put

A gunman is loose on campus. Stay in buildings until further notice.

Stay away from all windows

10:16 a.m., the school announced classes were canceled. By this time, Cho had killed 30 and committed suicide.

—–Original Message—–
Subject: All Classes Canceled; Stay where you are

Virginia Tech has canceled all classes. Those on campus are asked to remain where there are, lock their doors and stay away from windows.

Persons off campus are asked not to come to campus.

10:53 a.m., more than one hour after Cho had entered Norris Hall, students were told about second shooting. They were also erroneously told that police had one shooter in custody. There was only one shooter, Cho, and he was dead.

—–Original Message—–
Subject: Second Shooting Reported; Police have one gunman in custody

In addition to an earlier shooting today in West Ambler Johnston, there has been a multiple shooting with multiple victims in Norris Hall.

Police and EMS are on the scene.

Police have one shooter in custody and as part of routine police procedure, they continue to search for a second shooter.

All people in university buildings are required to stay inside until further notice.

All entrances to campus are closed.

6. Earlier Bomb Threats

Authorities believe that Cho may have been responsible for making two bomb threats targeting Virginia Tech’s engineering buildings in the week leading up to the shootings. On April 7, 2007, a written bomb threat was directed at Torgersen Hall.

The threat was reported at around 1:20 p.m. It took around 30 minutes for the school to make the decision to evacuate the 100,000-square-foot building. The Alumni Mall, a major gateway to the Virginia Tech campus, was also closed for much of the day.

Bomb-sniffing dogs failed to locate anything.

The second bomb threat came a number of days later and was aimed at multiple engineering buildings.

Staff and students were evacuated, and Virginia Tech sent out e-mails offering a $5,000 reward for information about the bomb threats.

No one was ever caught.

Norris Hall, where Cho killed more than 30, contained offices and laboratories for the Department of Engineering Science and Mechanics.

Engineering student Josh Wargo, who was a junior at Virginia Tech and in Norris Hall when the shootings took place, said students largely shrugged off the e-mails about the bomb threats.

“I got the e-mails, but my impression was it was prank or nothing serious,” said Wargo. He described the Blacksburg campus as “pretty peaceful.”

7. Seung-Hui Cho’s Early Years Showed Signs of Trouble

The Virginia Tech shooting was did not happen in a vacuum. Cho did not simply snap one morning out of thin air. What we have learned since April 16, 2007, is that Seung-Hui Cho was a troubled person who struggled with many demons.

Seung-Hui Cho was born in Seoul, South Korea in 1984. His family ran a used bookstore, which reportedly did not make a lot of money. As a result, Cho, along with his parents and older sister (Sun-Kyung Cho), lived frugally in a small two-room basement apartment.

As a child, he was remembered as being exceptionally quiet. So much so that some thought he was either mute or mentally ill.

According to one relative, “The kid didn’t say much and didn’t mix with other children. ‘Yes sir,’ was about all you could get from him.”

When his parents announced they were moving to America, their extended family was excited.

“We thought that it would help the boy gain confidence if he moved to the United States’ open society,” said an uncle who was identified only by his last name, Kim.

In 1992, when Seung-Hui Cho was eight, his family immigrated to the U.S., settling in Washington, D.C.’s large Korean community.

8. Cho’s Time in America

In the U.S., Cho’s parents both worked in the dry cleaning business. Cho, meanwhile, attended Poplar Tree Elementary School in Chantilly, Virginia. It was at this school that Cho, 9, was diagnosed as having both emotional and verbal developmental problems.

School officials picked up on Cho’s withdrawn nature and quickly acted on it. The school put him in an individualized education program and offered the family outside counseling.

This didn’t necessarily mean Cho was having fun at school. When he first started attending Poplar Tree Elementary School he was in the second grade, and “every time he came home from school he would cry and throw tantrums saying he never wanted to return to school,” said one family acquaintance.

9. Cho Mesmerized by Columbine Massacre

In 1999, when Cho was in eighth grade, he became transfixed by the horrors of the April 20 Columbine shootings. His fascination with the massacre came out in his school work.

“I remember sitting in Spanish class with him, right next to him, and there being something written on his binder to the effect of, you know, ‘F you all, I hope you all burn in hell,’ which I would assume meant us, the students,” said Ben Baldwin.

In a class assignment, Cho wrote about wanting to “repeat Columbine.”

Dr. Bela Sood, a veteran child psychologist and member of the official Virginia Tech review panel, noted, “It appeared as though the Columbine shooting set off in his mind the fantasies around suicide and homicide which were picked up in a class essay…and was picked up by the teacher who then sought the parents out and suggested that he be evaluated and which led to the psychiatric evaluation and the intensification of the counseling.”

Cho was diagnosed with a severe anxiety disorder, major depression, and “selective mutism.” He was put on Paxil, an anti-depressant medication, for one year.

10. Seung-Hui Cho Was Bullied

By the time Cho starting going to Westfield High School, his peers were quick to pick up on his differences. Not only did Cho look younger than his age, he was “scrawny,” unresponsive in class, essentially refused to speak, and kept to himself.

Classmates seized on this and bullied him. Those few times he was required to speak for a class assignment, students would mock his poor English and deep-throated voice.

One former classmate recalled, “As soon as he started reading, the whole class started laughing and pointing and saying, ‘Go back to China.’”

Cho became even more introverted. Or as some said, invisible.

Just like in middle school, Seng-Hui Cho took part in an individualized education program in high school.

At home, the Cho family took him to intensive counseling weekly.

“The family was highly supportive of Cho and they [did] go over and beyond what another family might do in putting the supports into place and being very thoughtful and careful about his needs,” Sood said.

According to Sood, Cho was doing better, “He did better in the sense that he looked brighter, he was more engaged, and that was based upon the information gleaned through our work that the therapist as well as the school personnel felt he was doing better.”

With the support of his family and the school, Cho graduated from Westfield in 2003 with a 3.5 grade point average. He applied to study at Virginia Tech and was accepted.

11. Seung-Hui Cho’s Troubles Followed Him to Virginia Tech

Seung-Hui Cho, the man behind the Virginia Tech massacre, had been mentally ill since childhood and over the years received help, including counseling and medication, from both his family and the schools he attended.

According to a 2007 report released by Gov. Tim Kaine of Virginia, though, by the time Cho arrived at Virginia Tech, the system had failed.

Because of federal privacy laws, Westfield High School was not able to inform Virginia Tech about his diagnosis, or the special allowances that were made for him in high school.

When asked if Cho’s records should have been forwarded to Virginia Tech, Sood replied, “That is a debatable question and it’s something that society, our nation, has to grapple with as to what happens to these records as a person transitions into college.”

As expected, attending Virginia Tech left Cho feeling more isolated than ever. His parents tried to support him, visiting every week during his first year. But his mental illnesses went unreported and untreated. On top of that, school officials missed numerous warning signs that he was a threat.

12. Seung-Hui Cho’s Behavior Changed Radically in Junior Year

At the beginning of his junior year, in the fall of 2005, Cho’s behavior changed. This was not lost on his fellow students and professors.

Dr. Lucinda Roy, head of the English Department in Cho’s junior year, recalled that his writings suggested he was spiraling out of control. They were filled with anger and violent fantasies. There was nothing explicit in Cho’s writings but, she said, the threats were there, between the lines.

“I thought he was maybe suicidal; he just seemed so depressed and I was also just concerned with him in general so I thought, ‘I need to alert everyone,’” she said. “So I did.”

Roy began to tutor Cho privately after another professor also showed concern. She said she was concerned for her safety when she met with him. In class, he wore sunglasses, pulled his cap lower over his eyes, and took cellphone pictures of her.

13. An Imaginary Girlfriend, and Fixation on Several Real Students

Around this time, Cho told his then roommate that he had a girlfriend. This was a surprise to virtually everyone since Cho was not known for going on dates or socializing with women on campus.

His girlfriend’s name was Jelly. She was a supermodel who lived in outer space and traveled by spaceship. When one of his roommates returned to their suite one day, Cho sent him away. He told him that Jelly was there. Her pet name for Cho was Spanky. SpankyJelly became his instant-message screen name.

At the same time, Cho became infatuated with several female students. Two of them complained to police that he was harassing them with unwanted phone calls, showing up at their rooms, and sending them countless instant messages.

They agreed that Cho was bothersome but not threatening. But after the second complaint against Cho surfaced in December 2005, police approached Cho and told him to stop.

Shortly after police left, Cho sent one of his roommates an instant message telling them he might as well kill himself. Campus police were alerted and Cho agreed to be evaluated by Access Services, an off-campus mental health facility.

A counselor there recommend involuntary commitment, and a judge signed an order deeming him a danger. Cho was sent to Carilion St. Albans Psychiatric Hospital in Radford, Virginia.

A doctor there declared him mentally ill, but not an imminent threat. Instead of committing Cho, a judge allowed him to undergo outpatient treatment. No one knows whether he did or not.

Police received no additional complaints about Cho before the shootings of April 16, 2007.

None of the women he harassed were victims in the shootings.

14. Seung-Hui Cho’s Counseling Records Vanished

Roy and at least one other Virginia Tech professor tried to get Cho help, even reaching out to the Cook Counseling Center on campus.

“I did call on several occasions and said this young man does seem to be troubled,” Roy said. “I used stronger language than that, and I would have appreciated a more bold response.”

It seems that Cho understood he was spiraling out of control. He contacted the Cook Counseling Center four times, once in person. But little was done. Or so it seems. Somehow, the records of Cho’s treatment went missing.

Cho’s mental health records were discovered two years later in the home of Robert C. Miller, the former director of the university’s counseling clinic and Cho’s former therapist. The records were discovered by lawyers preparing for a civil lawsuit filed in 2009 by families of two of the 32 people murdered by Cho.

Miller actually left his position at the Cook Counseling Center a year before the Virginia Tech massacre took place.

In 2007, when the university was conducting a search for the records, Miller claimed he didn’t know where they were. This means Miller took the records home, hid them, and failed to tell police where they were, knowing police were looking for them.

15. Seung-Hui Cho Wrote Disturbing Fiction at Virginia Tech

While in his junior year at Virginia Tech, Cho was in a writing class in which students were required to post their plays online for peer review and comment. One play, Richard McBeef, described a 13-year-old boy who accuses his stepfather of being a pedophile. The boy ends up dead.

In a second play, Mr. Brownstone, three high school students discuss an abusive teacher.

“I wanna kill him,” says one character.

“I wanna watch him bleed like the way he made us kids bleed,” says another.

A paper Cho wrote for a fiction workshop in the spring of 2006 is very similar to the events of April 16, 2007.

Marcus Martin, a member of Gov. Kaine’s Virginia Tech review panel, said the story is about a character named Bud, who gets out of bed uncharacteristically early one morning.

Bud puts on his black jeans and a strappy black vest with many pockets, dons a black hat, large sunglasses, and a flimsy jacket. At school, Bud sees other students “smiling, laughing, embracing each other. A few eyes glance at Bud but without the glint of recognition.”

In his story, Bud says, “So I hate this. I hate all these frauds. I hate my life. This is it. This is when you…this is when you God damn people die with me.”

Bud never acts on his thoughts, though, and instead drives away in a stolen car with a goth girl.

Unlike Bud, Cho acted one year later. He was found dead, wearing the same clothing as his character.

16. Seung-Hui Cho Planned Virginia Tech Massacre for Months

Cho didn’t just snap on April 16, 2007, and the Virginia Tech shooting wasn’t a random act of violence. There is more than enough evidence to suggest Cho spent months planning the Virginia Tech massacre.

  • On February 9, 2007, the Virginia Tech shooter picked up a Walther .22-caliber pistol he order ordered online at a local pawnshop near Virginia Tech. Over the following weeks, Cho practiced his shooting at several local gun ranges.
  • On March 12, Cho rented a van from the Roanoke Regional Airport that he kept for a month.
  • The next day, he purchased a second gun at Roanoke Firearms and 50 rounds of ammunition for $571.
  • On March 22, Cho visited the PSS Range and spent an hour practicing. He purchased four more ammunition magazines for the Glock. Employees remember seeing a young Asian male videotaping himself inside a van in the parking lot.
  • Over the next few weeks, Cho went to the Walmart in Christiansburg on March 31, April 7, April 8, and April 13. He purchased cargo pants, sunglasses, .22-caliber ammunition, a hunting knife, gloves, and a granola bar. He also bought extra magazines of ammunition from Dick’s Sporting Goods.
  • On April 8, Cho spent the night at the Hampton Inn in Christiansburg. It is believed that he shot some of his videos in a hotel room there. A gold extension cord for a lamp in one of the images looked like the one in the room.

All told, Seung-Hui Cho spent months and thousands of dollars preparing for the Virginia Tech massacre.

17. University Stands by Handling of the Virginia Tech Massacre

Two university professors, Seung-Hui Cho’s former roommate, classmates, and police all say Cho behaved in a disturbing manner. On top of that, a psychologist deemed Cho to be mentally ill with another recommending involuntary commitment.

That said, then Virginia Tech police Chief Wendell Flinchum said there was nothing anyone could have done because Cho hand’t done anything criminal.

When asked why students weren’t warned or why the campus wasn’t locked down before Cho walked into Norris Hall, killing 30, Flinchum remained resolute. The school and campus police made the decision they did because they believed the murders of Emily Hilscher and Ryan Clark were a result of a domestic quarrel that was contained to one dorm.

Better to be sorry than safe. Of the school’s response to Seung-Hui Cho, university President Charles Steger went on to say, “I don’t think anyone could have predicted that another event was going to take place two hours later.”

 


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