Cho Investigation Draws a Twisted Profile

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A dark portrait is emerging of the gunman blamed for the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. Seung-hui Cho had previously been accused of harassing two female students at Virginia Tech and had been taken to a mental health facility in 2005 after an acquaintance worried he might be suicidal.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

People who knew Seung-hui Cho, the Virginia Tech student responsible for Monday's mass shooting, are piecing together a disturbing portrait of the 23-year-old.

NPR's Ari Shapiro has this report beginning at Cho's hometown of Centreville, Virginia.

ARI SHAPIRO: Yu O-Soon(ph) has known Seung-hui Cho's family for more than 10 years. Both Mr. and Mrs. Cho had jobs at the dry cleaners where Mrs. Yu now works, and the two families were next-door neighbors for a while. She says the children were always very studious.

Ms. YU O-SOON (Cho Family's Neighbor): (Through Translator) Seung-hui Cho's older sister was especially polite and considerate. We didn't think that Seung-hui Cho had, sort of, the social skills that was expected of somebody of his age. He never greeted us. He's very quiet.

But, you know, at the same time, you know, I'm a Korean mother and we always saw that these children were studying so hard. And we'd tell our children, why don't you study more like these kids. And you know, they actually both ended up in very good schools and we were quite envious.

SHAPIRO: She says the last time she saw Mr. Cho was about a year ago.

Ms. YU: (Through Translator) He actually looked quite well and happier than usual, because it appeared as if both of the kids were actually now going to be pretty much set, in both their academic career and their future. And so I just really didn't suspect that there was anything going on.

SHAPIRO: But it's now clear that there were warning signs even then. Paul Kim(ph) shared a class with Cho three days a week at Virginia Tech.

Mr. PAUL KIM (Cho's Classmate): His face was always dark and he was always gloomy in some way. He never looked up.

SHAPIRO: Kim says Cho sat on the chair closest to the door and fled the minute class was over everyday. He tried to talk with Cho outside of class, but never could. Captain Wendell Flinchum of the Virginia Tech police said at a press conference today, that school officials were also aware there was a problem.

Captain WENDELL FLINCHUM (Chief, Virginia Tech Police Department): In November of 2005, Cho had made contact with - through phone calls and in person - with a female student. The student notified the Virginia Tech Police Department and officers responded.

SHAPIRO: The student didn't press charges but the police referred Cho to the university's disciplinary system. The next month: a similar incident.

Capt. FLINCHUM: Cho instant messaged a second female student. Again, no threat was made against that student. However, she made a complaint with the Virginia Tech Police Department and asked that Cho have no further contact with her.

SHAPIRO: Police talked with Cho the next morning, and later that day the police received another call about him. An acquaintance was afraid Cho was suicidal so officers talked with him one more time.

Capt. FLINCHUM: I was concerned for Cho. Officers asked him to speak to a counselor. He went voluntarily to the police department. Based on that interaction with the counselor, a temporary detention order was obtained and Cho was taken to a mental health facility.

SHAPIRO: According to documents filed with the Montgomery County, Virginia magistrate's office shows the detention was involuntary. The form shows Cho was classified as an imminent danger to himself or others. It says his affect is flat and mood is depressed. He denies suicidal ideation. He does not acknowledged symptoms of a thought disorder. His insight and judgment are normal.

This is important because every gun buyer in Virginia has to attest that he or she has never been involuntarily committed to a mental institution.

Stephen Halbrook is a lawyer in Virginia who specializes in the Second Amendment.

Mr. STEPHEN HALBROOK (Lawyer, Virginia): If he did meet the federal standard of being committed then he would have lied on the form, and unfortunately the background check might not have picked that up.

SHAPIRO: Halbrooke says it's easy for a background check to catch something like a felony conviction, but the records for mental health institutions are not as centralized or readily available.

Finally, NBC News reported tonight that Cho sent a manifesto to NBC News during the two hours between the two shootings on Monday. It includes writings and images. The original is now with the FBI. Law enforcement officials said this may be a critical moment in the investigation.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News.

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