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Experts say Va. Tech gunman 'prototypical' school shooter

April 20th, 2007 12:24 am by SHARON COHEN



BLACKSBURG - In high school, Cho Seung-Hui almost never opened his mouth. When he finally did, his classmates laughed, pointed at him and said: "Go back to China."


As such details of the Virginia Tech shooter's life come out, and experts pore over his sick and twisted writings and his videotaped rant, it is becoming increasingly clear that Cho was almost a textbook case of a school shooter: a painfully awkward, picked-on young man who lashed out with methodical fury at a world he believed was out to get him.


"In virtually every regard, Cho is prototypical of mass killers that I've studied in the past 25 years," said Northeastern University criminal justice professor James Alan Fox, co-author of 16 books on crime. "That doesn't mean, however, that one could have predicted his rampage."


When criminologists and psychologists look at mass murders, Cho fits the themes they see repeatedly: a friendless figure, someone who has been bullied, someone who blames others and is bent on revenge, a careful planner, a male. And someone who sent up warning signs with his strange behavior long in advance.


Among other things, the 23-year-old South Korean immigrant was sent to a psychiatric hospital and pronounced an imminent danger to himself. He was accused of stalking two women and photographing female students in class with his cell phone. And his violence-filled writings were so disturbing he was removed from one class, and professors begged him to get counseling. He rarely looked anyone in the eye and did not even talk to his own roommates.


Cho, who killed 32 people and committed suicide at the Blacksburg campus Monday, cast himself in his video diatribe as a persecuted figure like Jesus Christ. Cho, who came to the U.S. at about age 8 in 1992 and whose parents worked at a dry cleaners in suburban Washington, also ranted against rich "brats" with Mercedes, gold necklaces, cognac and trust funds.


Classmates in Virginia, where Cho grew up, said he was teased and picked on, apparently because of shyness and his strange, mumbly way of speaking.


Once, in English class at Westfield High School in Chantilly, Va., when the teacher had the students read aloud, Cho looked down when it was his turn, said Chris Davids, a Virginia Tech senior and high school classmate. After the teacher threatened him with an F for participation, Cho began reading in a strange, deep voice that sounded "like he had something in his mouth," Davids said.


"The whole class started laughing and pointing and saying, ‘Go back to China,'" Davids said.


Stephanie Roberts, 22, a classmate of Cho's at Westfield High, said she never witnessed anyone picking on Cho in high school. But she said friends of hers who went to middle school with him told her they recalled him getting bullied there.


"There were just some people who were really mean to him and they would push him down and laugh at him," Roberts said. "He didn't speak English really well and they would really make fun of him."


Cho's great aunt, who lives in South Korea, said Thursday that because he did not speak much as a child and after the family emigrated to the United States, doctors thought he may be autistic.


"Normally sons and mothers talk. There was none of that for them. He was very cold," Kim Yang-soon said in an interview with AP Television News. "When they went to the United States, they told them it was autism."


Neither school officials, who have his educational records, nor police who have his medical records, have mentioned such a diagnosis this week. Autistic individuals often have difficulty communicating, but such a diagnosis would not necessarily explain his violence.


Regan Wilder, 21, who attended Virginia Tech, high school and middle school with Cho, said she was sure Cho probably was picked on in middle school, but so was everyone else. And it didn't seem as if English was the problem for him, she said. If he didn't speak English well, there were several other Korean students he could have reached out to for friendship, but he didn't.


In other developments Thursday:


• Gov. Timothy Kaine appointed an independent panel to look into the tragedy and how authorities handled it. The panel will be led by former Virginia State Police superintendent Gerald Massengill and will include former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.


• University officials said that all of Cho's student victims would be awarded degrees posthumously, and officials are outlining a way to let students complete their courses, possibly by allowing their work to this point in the semester count as completed.


• Private funeral ceremonies were held in Blacksburg for two international students killed in the massacre. Egyptian Waleed Mohammed Shaalan and Partahi Mamora Halomoan Lumbantoruan, a civil engineering doctoral student from Indonesia, also will have funerals in their home countries.


• With a backlash developing against the media, and some warning of copycat killers, the major TV networks cut back on showings of Cho's video rant. "It has value as breaking news," said ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider, "but then becomes practically pornographic as it is just repeated ad nauseam."


A 2002 federal study on common characteristics of school shooters found that 71 percent of them "felt bullied, persecuted or injured by others prior to the attack."


The report said that "in some of these cases the experience of being bullied seemed to have a significant impact on the attacker and appeared to have been a factor in his decision to mount an attack at the school. In one case, most of the attacker's schoolmates described the attacker as the kid everyone teased."


Cho "would almost be a poster child for the pattern that we saw," said Marisa Randazzo, the former chief research psychologist at the U.S. Secret Service and co-author of the study, conducted jointly with the Education Department.


Among the victims of the Virginia Tech massacre were two other Westfield High graduates, Reema Samaha and Erin Peterson. Both young women graduated from the high school last year. But police said it is not clear whether Cho singled them out.


However, another expert who has worked with mentally disturbed young criminals suggested that Cho's actions probably had genetic causes.


"This is very different" from someone who was bullied to the breaking point - Cho was clearly psychotic and delusional, said Dr. Louis Kraus, chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at Chicago's Rush University Medical Center.


"This type of mental illness that this poor man had was not something that was likely precipitated by teasing or bullying," he said. More likely, he said, is that Cho had a biological psychiatric disorder that may have worsened in recent years because of the pressures of college life and his leaving the support of his family.


Randazzo said about the only difference between Cho and the killers studied is he hadn't bragged about the assault in advance, though that may surface later, perhaps in blogs or chat rooms.


Fox, the criminologist, said Cho probably made the decision to go on a killing spree months ago based on his weapon purchase. That would explain why witnesses described him as remarkably calm when he did the shooting.


"There's a lot of scripting that's going on in their heads, a lot of planning. Once they've decided it, there's a certain degree of comfort and satisfaction that they'll be the last to laugh," Fox said.


Fox said there is typically a precipitating event that sets a gunman off. It is not yet known what that was in Cho's case.


"It may not be huge" to normal people, but to Cho "it was the final straw that broke the camel's back," Fox said.

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