Seung-Hui Cho was born on January 18, 1984, in South Korea, and came to the United States with his parents and older sister in 1992, living briefly in Maryland before moving to Centreville, a Fairfax County suburb of Washington, D.C. The parents said they immigrated so their children could get a better education. The young Cho was unusually shy and withdrawn and his reluctance to communicate would be of lifelong family concern. A report issued by the governor‘s review panel tasked with investigating the shootings and aftermath found that as a three-year-old Cho may have been traumatized by a cardiac procedure. “From that point on, Cho did not like to be touched,” the report said.
Cho’s physical health seemingly improved but his withdrawal and silence persisted. Despite cultural and language barriers, his mother sought help for her son from a multicultural counseling center in the summer of 1997, before Cho began seventh grade. In April 1999, shortly after two students shot and killed twelve students and one teacher and injured twenty-one others at Columbine High School, in Columbine, Colorado, Cho wrote a paper for his eighth-grade English class “indicating that ‘he wanted to repeat Columbine,'” the governor’s report said. A doctor diagnosed him as suffering “selective mutism” and an episode of “major depression.” Cho was prescribed an antidepressant for a year.
At Westfield High School, in Fairfax County, Cho appeared to prosper through attention from teachers and counselors, and adherence to an Individualized Education Program. He graduated with a 3.52 grade point average and participated in an honors program. (Two of Cho’s victims were Westfield graduates, but there was no indication that he specifically targeted them or any of the others he shot.)
Cho became determined to attend Virginia Tech, despite opposition from his parents and counselors, who believed the university was too large for him. Cho was among nearly 28,000 students who enrolled in the autumn of 2003. He arrived without any support network, and the university received no disclosure of his troubled history. Still, his freshman year passed without any reported incident.
Cho initially majored in business information systems but decided the following autumn to switch his major to English. After seeking advice from a professor, Cho submitted a proposal for a novel to a publishing house and, in the spring of 2005, was rejected. His family said he seemed depressed afterward, and the episode was noted by Aradhana Bela Sood, a child psychiatry expert who served on the governor’s panel and analyzed Cho’s descent into mass murder and suicide. In an article published in The Virginia Tech Massacre: Strategies and Challenges for Improving Mental Health Policy on Campus and Beyond (2016), Sood writes that the depression Cho suffered in middle school may have “melted away” with treatment, “but left the baseline anxiety and selective mutism intact.” Within that complex and fragile context, according to Sood, Cho would have been vulnerable to any number of stresses. Cho exhibited a string of alarming behaviors during the autumn of 2005, including classroom conduct that frightened students and teachers, contacts with female students that were perceived as disturbing, and violent writings that, according to Sood, gave “a glimpse of his unraveling mind.”
On December 13, 2005, a pre-screener from the New River Valley Community Services Board evaluated Cho after he told a suitemate in an instant message, “I might as well kill myself now.” The suitemate contacted Virginia Tech police, who sought the evaluation. Cho made the comment after the police told him not to contact a student who became concerned after he left a verse from the Shakespeare play Romeo and Juliet on a message board outside her dorm room. The same student had seen Cho use a knife to stab at the carpet in her room when he once visited with his suitemates.
Cho spent the night at Carilion Clinic Saint Albans Hospital, part of the Carilion New River Valley Medical Center, in Christiansburg. A special justice ruled at a commitment hearing the next day that Cho was a danger to himself and ordered outpatient treatment. Cho was triaged at Virginia Tech’s Cook Counseling Center, but an appointment for treatment wasn’t made and no one checked to see that the justice’s order had been obeyed. Because Cho was ordered to outpatient treatment rather than being committed to a facility, his name was not reported to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which would have flagged him when he tried to purchase his guns.
On April 17, 2006, Cho had an angry confrontation with an English professor. In the autumn, he continued to compose violent writing, including one piece that seemed to presage the shootings. Throughout, his parents were never notified of their son’s encounters with the state mental health system or campus police; they told representatives of the governor’s panel they had no idea of the depth of the problems. Cho had contacts with a range of campus, mental health, judicial, and police entities, none seemingly knowing enough about all of his problems to recognize the danger he posed to himself and others.
Cho bought weapons and ammunition early in 2007, practiced at a shooting range, and avoided contact with the police except for when, on March 31, 2007, he received a speeding ticket. It was the same day that he purchased chains, ammunition, and a hunting knife.
Cho awoke early on Monday, April 16, 2007, in his Harper Hall dormitory room and worked at his computer. He soon armed himself and walked to nearby West Ambler Johnston Hall dormitory. Cho entered by either following another student with a swipe card or entering as another exited. He then proceeded to the fourth floor, where he shot Emily Hilscher and Ryan Clark, the resident assistant who came from his room next door. The police arrived within ten minutes and found no witnesses to the shootings. Cho’s escape had been marked by a trail of bloody footprints. Hilscher died after being transferred to Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital, in Roanoke. Clark died on the way to Montgomery Regional Hospital (later LewisGale Hospital Montgomery), in Blacksburg.
Hilscher’s roommate arrived at the dormitory about 8:15 a.m. and was questioned by the police. She said that Hilscher had just returned from a weekend with her boyfriend, Karl Thornhill, a student at nearby Radford University. She also said, under questioning, that she knew of no troubles between Hilscher and Thornhill, and that the boyfriend owned a gun he used for target practice. The police decided Thornhill was a “person of interest,” and focused on the ultimately mistaken theory that the killings were domestic. Thornhill, meantime, learned from the roommate’s boyfriend that Hilscher had been shot, and rushed back to Virginia Tech, only to be stopped by the police about 9:24 a.m. just off campus. After performing a field test for residue, officers left abruptly to respond to reports of shootings at Norris Hall.
Victims of Virginia Tech Shootings
Carrying a 9mm Glock, a .22 caliber Walther pistol, and a backpack full of ammunition, Cho chained shut from the inside Norris Hall’s three entrances before proceeding to the second floor. He opened fire on the advanced hydrology class of Professor G. V. Loganathan in room 206. He killed Loganathan and nine others in an attack that authorities said happened so fast that no one had time to call the police. Cho then went across the hall to room 207, where he fatally shot Christopher James Bishop, the instructor of an elementary German class, and four of his students. In room 205, students and the teaching assistant Haiyan Cheng twice fended off Cho as he shot through their barricade and tried to enter.
In room 211, the intermediate French instructor Jocelyne Couture-Nowak ventured briefly into the hall before telling a student, Colin Goddard, to call 911. His call got through to the Blacksburg police about a minute after the shooting began. Cho soon pushed his way past the teacher and students who tried to block the door. In two attacks on the room he murdered the instructor and eleven students. Goddard was shot while on his cell phone, which flew from his hand to student Emily Haas. Despite being grazed twice in the head by gunfire, she was able to keep the call open to the police. Both survived.
In room 204, Professor Liviu Librescu, a seventy-six-year-old Holocaust survivor, was shot and killed while blocking the door so his students could jump to safety from the windows of their solid mechanics class. Cho also killed Minal Hiralal Panchal, a graduate student who refused to leave until the others were safe. On the third floor, Kevin P. Granata, a professor of engineering science and mechanics, locked students in his office after the shooting began and headed to the danger of the second floor, where he was fatally shot in the hall.
Already on campus because of the dormitory shootings, the police responded immediately. After trying unsuccessfully to shoot their way through one entrance, the police got in by firing a single shotgun blast into a locked but unchained maintenance door. As they entered, Cho returned to the French class for a third time and killed himself in front of the room. The time was about 9:51 a.m., or approximately ten minutes since the first 911 call. The governor’s report said the rapid police response saved lives. Although Cho had fired 174 rounds, police found more than 200 unused rounds, including two loaded 9mm magazines with fifteen cartridges each.
As families arrived on campus that evening they were directed to the Inn at Virginia Tech, where, according to the governor’s report, they found a disorganized operation that in many cases failed to provide basic information. News organizations were in the adjacent alumni center, adding to the tension. The medical examiner’s office was overwhelmed, and the next morning many families were still searching for answers.
University’s Early Response
Charles Steger, the president of Virginia Tech, learned about the shootings at approximately 8:10 a.m. By 8:25 a.m., he and top officials known as the Policy Group had gathered near his office in Burruss Hall to oversee the response. While Virginia Tech remained open, some units of the university and public schools in Blacksburg locked down as early as 8 a.m. Between 8:45 and 8:49 a.m., a Policy Group member emailed a colleague in Richmond, writing, “Gunman on the loose,” and, “This is not releasable yet.” The member added, “Just try to make sure it doesn’t get out.” The university sent a warning email to the campus at 9:26 a.m., but only specifying a shooting “incident,” with no information on the murderous dormitory attack or that the shooter was at large. A second email went out at 9:50 a.m., reporting that a gunman was loose and warning people to stay in buildings and away from windows.
The delay confounded critics, especially because the university had canceled classes on the academic year’s first day because of a nearby and ongoing search for a suspect in the murders of a Montgomery County sheriff’s deputy and hospital security officer. The issue was also central to suits filed by the families of shooting victims Erin Nicole Peterson and Julia Kathleen Pryde. The parents testified that their children stayed in their residences during the search for killer William Morva and would have done the same had there been a similar warning on April 16. Steger later testified that Virginia Tech officials wanted to first notify the families of the students killed in the dormitory and avoid panic. He said the university could not have foreseen the attack at Norris Hall.
NBC News broadcast the Cho video April 18, as details emerged regarding the number of faculty, students and staff who had some knowledge of his mental-health problems. In the video, Cho praised the Columbine High School teen killers in a rant that lashed out at the “debaucheries” of the affluent and unidentified others. “Now you have blood on your hands that will never wash off,” he said. Among the images were Cho in a shooter’s vest, his arms outstretched, holding a semiautomatic pistol in each hand.
By the week’s end, Kaine appointed W. Gerald Massengill, a retired superintendent of the Virginia State Police, to chair an eight-person panel charged with reviewing the shootings and the official responses, and making recommendations for improvements by the beginning of the 2007–2008 school year. Kaine also signed an executive order on April 30, 2007, closing the loophole that kept Cho’s name off the background check registry for the purchase of firearms.
After a series of hearings and more than 200 interviews, the governor’s review panel issued its report on August 29, 2007. Key among the findings were that Virginia Tech waited too long to issue a warning, that the police spent too much time on the mistaken lead that the dormitory killings were domestic, and that more care should have been taken when the families of victims and potential victims arrived in Blacksburg. Other detailed recommendations in the more than 200-page report addressed issues ranging from shortcomings in the mental health system to what information could be shared under privacy laws. The General Assembly responded the following year by enacting many of the suggested reforms, including the approval of an additional $42 million for the state’s mental health system. That was reduced by a like amount in the years following the Great Recession. The state also signed settlement agreements with nearly all the family members and funded the establishment of a family foundation.
Memorializing the Tragedy
The Pryde and Peterson families, neither of whom accepted the state’s settlement, filed suits on the second anniversary of the shootings and their cases went to trial in 2012 in Montgomery County Circuit Court in Christiansburg. Jurors decided that Karen and Harry Pryde and Celeste and Grafton Peterson should each be awarded $4 million, siding with lawyers who said Virginia Tech failed to give a timely warning. The university, however, later prevailed in arguments that a state cap on damages should apply in the liability verdicts, which were reduced to $100,000 each. In 2013, the Supreme Court of Virginia overturned the verdict, ruling that the university was not legally required to “to warn or protect another from the criminal acts of a third person.” The court said, “most importantly,” that officials “believed that the shooter had fled the area and posed no danger to others.”
Virginia Tech also fought fines levied by the U.S. Department of Education stemming from alleged violations of the federal Clery Act, which requires timely disclosures of campus threats. The department fined the university $55,000, an amount that was later reduced to $32,500. Without acknowledging any violation, Virginia Tech confirmed on the seventh anniversary of the shootings that it had paid the fines.