April 17, 2007
BLACKSBURG — An orange paper fish stuck outside the door to Room 2121 of Harper Hall bears the names "Joe" and "Seung-Ho," a bright, promising note to a new school year.
It went up in August when Joseph E. Aust and Cho Seung-Hui moved in. Cho barely said a word after that. On Monday, he took his guns and — still silent, witnesses say — killed 32 students and faculty.
His roommate, appearing tired and overwhelmed Tuesday, has no idea why.
"I didn't really know him at all," Aust said. "I tried to make conversation with him in August or so, and he would just give one-word answers and not try to carry on a conversation."
Aust didn't learn Cho was an English major — one whose creative writing features talk of rape and pedophilia and angry desires to kill — until Tuesday.
Aust, 19, of Maryland, is a sophomore and an electrical engineering major. He said Cho, 23 and a senior, "was always really, really quiet… He didn't really talk to anybody."
"I would notice a lot of times, like, I would come in the room and he'd be just kind of like sitting at his desk, just staring at nothing. It seemed a little odd, but I would pass it…off like he was just weird," said Aust.
A native of South Korea, Cho lived with his parents in Centreville and was a 2003 graduate of Westfield High School in Fairfax County.
At Tech, Aust and Cho lived in one of three, two-person rooms that, along with a small bathroom, make up each suite at the dorm. The suite looks lived-in but fairly clean. There are plastic bottles of hand soap on the sink and a can of spray disinfectant below.
News of what Cho did shocked and surprised many who came into contact with him during the past year.
Like Aust, they have no explanation for what happened Monday morning.
"I didn't really see him," Aust said. "I was sleeping at the time. I could hear him get up, and I looked at my clock and noticed what time he was waking up 'cause he makes a lot of noise, usually.
"It was like, 5:30 or 6." Aust said he went back to sleep.
He said Cho seemed to go through his normal morning routine: went to the bathroom, dressed and took his medicine. Aust said Cho had prescription medication, but he did not know what it was. Cho also wore contacts and used eyedrops.
Aust said that Cho did not keep normal student hours. He went to bed relatively early, about 9 p.m., and arose around 7 a.m. However, Aust said, in the past couple of weeks, "he'd been getting up earlier and earlier — about like, 5:30, 6."
He did not see anything else out of the ordinary about Cho in recent days or weeks.
Karan Grewal, 21, of Falls Church, one of the suite residents, agreed.
Grewal said he was up all Sunday night and Monday morning studying. He said he was in the bathroom about 5 a.m. when Cho came in and used a toilet.
"He was looking normal; he never talked to anyone," so his silence Monday morning was not in any way suspicious, said Grewal.
Neither Aust nor Grewal ever saw Cho with a friend of either sex. "I never saw him with anybody. . . . He seemed like a guy who didn't have a lot of friends," said Grewal. "He didn't speak to any of us, his roommates."
He did listen to music of all kinds, including rock, rap and classical. Aust and Grewal said Cho frequently worked out with weights at a campus gymnasium.
Neither knew what reason he would have to be at either building where the shootings took place. And they never saw him with firearms or ammunition.
Grewal returned to his room and was asleep during the shootings. "I just woke up about 9:30 when I heard the sirens."
Aust said that when he returned to his room Monday after class, nothing was out of the ordinary, except for an electric screwdriver on Cho's desk. Aust, Grewal and two other suite residents left the building Monday and watched news coverage. Grewal's roommate was out of town, he said.
They didn't learn of Cho's involvement until the police arrived at their suite about 7 p.m. Monday.
"They were asking questions of everybody," Grewal said. They took brown bags with red tape out of Cho's room, presumably his clothing and other belongings. Aust said they took Cho's computer, too, before leaving about midnight.
Cho's recent writings were unsettling, some who read them say.
One play, called "Richard McBeef" features violence and profanity, with a teen-ager protagonist chanting, "Must kill. Must kill," referring to his stepfather. In the play, the teen attempts to suffocate the stepfather with a cereal bar.
A fellow student in his playwriting class, Susan Derry, told The Collegiate Times his plays "were really morbid and grotesque."
She said Cho never spoke in class and would only shrug if asked to talk about his work.
Ed Falco, who teaches the playwriting class, said he couldn't talk about Cho or his work. He said the university's lawyers asked staff not to talk about Cho as long as the investigation continues.
Grewald said he and Aust were surprised when they learned Cho was the killer.
"I actually didn't believe it," he said. "I would have gone as far as telling the cops that he did not seem capable of anything like this," he said. "He was a pretty small kid. . . . I just thought he was a quiet guy."
Last August, "I said, 'Hi,' to him twice. He never replied, he just shied away," Grewal said.
Harper Hall is an L-shaped four-story structure about 300 yards from West Ambler Johnston Hall, known on campus as West AJ, where two people were gunned down early Monday morning.
Other Harper residents said they barely knew Cho. Brittany Irving, a sophomore from Mechanicsville who lives a floor above Cho's quarters, said he was unknown to her until Tuesday.
"When I learned what he did, it saddened and sickened me," she said.
One of Cho's victims at West AJ was Ryan Clark, the resident adviser.
echanicsville freshman Connor Miles said it was a privilege to live with Clark.
Resident advisers usually have a room to themselves, but Miles said a crowding problem meant he had to double up with Clark at the beginning of the year. "He couldn't have been nicer about it. He said he didn't need the room that much anyway and to use all the space I needed. He just went out of his way to make me feel comfortable and like someone cared."
The confrontation with Cho, from what Miles has heard, simply involved Ryan stepping down the hall and asking Cho to keep an early morning argument to a minimum.
"He just said something like, 'Keep it down. Take it easy.' But he never saw what was coming."
Cho had confronted Emily Hilscher, a freshman student from Woodville in Rappahannock County. She died in the same burst of gunfire that killed Ryan, according to friends and Rappahannock Sheriff's Maj. Chris Williams.
Hilscher was remembered Tuesday as "smiling, happy, outgoing and friendly," said Will Nachlas, who shared three classes with the equestrian enthusiast and resides in West AJ.
Eddie Royal, a Virginia Tech football player, attended Westfield High School with Cho but said he didn't know him. "It's a scary thing to think about, that a person who had the potential to cause such harm was so close to you," Royal said.
Sean Glennon, a third-year Tech student and quarterback of the Hokies' football team, graduated from Westfield High a year after Cho.
"When I saw his picture, he looked familiar. I don't think I ever talked to him," Glennon said. "I talked to some people from high school who had classes with me, and they told me they don't think they ever heard him say a word. According to my friends, he was definitely quiet."
In the Centreville neighborhood of neatly kept three-story town houses where Cho Sueng-Hui's family lives, neighbors described them as people who kept to themselves and were polite.
"The woman always smiled and waved — that's it," said Doris Main, a retiree who didn't even know the couple had a son.