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A puzzling start to a deadly day

Times Staff Writers

It was still dark at 5:30 a.m., when Karan Grewal bumped into his roommate in the bathroom of their suite in Virginia Tech’s Harper Hall. Grewal had been up all night studying, but he knew better than to grumble to Seung-hui Cho.

None of the guys in the suite talked to Cho. They’d tried, at first, but Cho never answered; he rarely responded even to a simple “Hi.” His roommates figured he didn’t speak much English.

On this blustery Monday, Cho was in boxer shorts and a T-shirt, getting ready for the day. Grewal, 21, washed up and went back to his bedroom to get some rest. He fell asleep about 7 a.m.

Twelve hours later, police would come knocking.

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The 911 call came in at 7:15 a.m: gunshots at a college dorm.

Campus police rushed to West Ambler Johnston Hall, a century-old stone building on the east side of the expansive campus. On the fourth floor, they found two bodies.

There was no weapon and no sign of the gunman. There was also little panic. Several of the nearly 900 students in the coed dorm said they slept through the gunfire. Some noticed police outside; a few heard ambulance sirens. But many went about their morning as usual, bundling up in warm clothes as they headed off to class in the swirling snow.

Heather Haugh, who had been off campus for the weekend, walked up to the dorm shortly before 7:30 a.m. She was planning to meet her roommate, Emily Hilscher, to walk to chemistry class with her. But police pulled her aside at the door.

That interview would shape the terrible day that followed.

Investigators told Haugh, 18, that her roommate had been shot. They began asking about Hilscher’s romances. Haugh told them what she knew: Her roommate had spent the weekend on another college campus with her boyfriend, Karl Thornhill.

The police asked about guns; Haugh told them Thornhill had recently taken both girls to a shooting range for fun. She told police she believed he kept the weapons at his home in Blacksburg.

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Though Haugh described her roommate as having “a perfect relationship with her boyfriend,” investigators suspected the shooting was prompted by a lovers’ quarrel. They relayed their theory to university administrators at an 8:25 a.m. meeting. By then, classes were already underway, and President Charles W. Steger saw no need to cancel them. “We had no reason to suspect any other incident was going to occur,” he said.

Investigators, meanwhile, had tracked down Thornhill, pulling him over as he was driving off campus. He raised their suspicion at once by contradicting Haugh’s account. His guns were not at his home, he said; he had taken them to his parents’ house in Boston, Va., about 370 miles away. He also denied that he and Hilscher had spent the weekend at Longwood University in Farmville, about 140 miles from Blacksburg.

Campus Police Det. Stephanie Henley requested a search warrant for a residence believed to be linked to Thornhill. She was looking, she wrote, for “firearms, ammunition, bloody clothing ... “

Murky motive

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Authorities are as yet unwilling to clear Thornhill; he “remains a person of interest,” according to the state police superintendent, Col. Steven Flaherty.

But Flaherty also said it’s “reasonable to assume” that Cho committed the murders at Ambler Johnston Hall. Why he may have targeted that dorm, that room, is murky. There’s no evidence that he knew Hilscher. He was a 23-year-old English major, a taciturn loner; she was an upbeat 19-year-old studying animal sciences, so close to her family that she called her mother every day.

If Cho had planned a massacre, he had ample opportunity to shoot other victims; the dorm was filled with sleeping students. But only one other student, 22-year-old senior Ryan Clark, was shot in the dorm, known as AJ. Then the gunman fled.

Nearly 2 1/2 hours later, Cho turned up in Norris Hall, a science and engineering building half a mile from AJ. He was armed with two handguns, one of them the weapon used to kill Hilscher and Clark in the dorm.

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His face was still, expressionless, as he methodically began to kill.

‘Unremarkable’ gun sale

Cho bought one gun, a .22-caliber Walther P22, in February, at a pawnshop on Main Street.

The other he purchased March 12 at Roanoke Firearms, about 40 miles away.

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The gun shop is in a cream-colored brick building, set up against the Blue Ridge Mountains, with the words: “Protection -- Service -- Training” etched on the door. Inside, guns of every description, price tags dangling, are displayed in glass cases. A bumper sticker on the wall urges: “Buy a gun for America.”

Cho bought a Glock 9-millimeter pistol here for $535, 30 rounds of ammunition included.

As required by law, he presented identification: a Virginia driver’s license, checks that matched the address on the license, and a federal immigration card to prove he was a legal U.S. resident. He passed a background check and left the store with his gun.

“It really was a very unremarkable sale,” owner John Markell said. “He was about as clean-cut a kid as you’d ever want to see.”

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On campus, Cho had raised some alarms. His professor for a 2005 seminar, the renowned poet Nikki Giovanni, found his work disturbingly dark. “He was writing really creepy things,” Giovanni said. Worse, Cho was intimidating the other students in the class by snapping pictures of them with his cellphone camera. Finally, Giovanni decided to ask Cho to complete the course work outside the seminar, in a one-on-one tutorial with the department head. “I couldn’t allow him to destroy my class,” she said.

At the end of the semester, Giovanni gave him an A -- not for talent or effort, but because she feared angering him.

“I think he liked the idea that he was a scary guy,” Giovanni said.

In a more recent writing workshop, Cho maintained his intimidating presence. Though students were supposed to critique one another, student Stephanie Derry said she couldn’t remember Cho ever saying a word.

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“He would just sit and watch us,” Derry said. “It was his lack of behavior that really set him apart.”

His five roommates, too, found him hard to read. He worked out in the gym. He downloaded music. Other than that, they could identify few of his habits, except that he sometimes just sat in his room, staring vacantly ahead. His room was a blank: no posters, no photos -- nothing but a laptop and books.

Joseph Aust, a sophomore, shared a bedroom in the suite with Cho but didn’t know his major. He couldn’t even pronounce his roommate’s name.

‘Blood all over’

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The shootings inside Norris Hall unfolded in fragments of sounds.

The clank of an empty ammunition clip falling to the floor. A scream. A siren. The scrape of a desk being pushed to barricade a classroom door.

And the shots, an unrelenting staccato. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang.

It started about 9:40 a.m., about 15 minutes after campus administrators sent a brief e-mail to all students and staff titled: “Shooting on campus.” The e-mail made note of “a shooting incident” in the AJ dorm and urged everyone “to be cautious.” But it raised no specific alarm.

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The students in Herr Bishop’s German class, in Room 207, didn’t feel particularly concerned when a young man poked his head into their classroom. He took a look and left.

Moments later, he was back.

He shot the professor, Christopher James Bishop, in the head. Students screamed and hid under desks; Cho kept shooting. He said nothing. He did not appear to be looking for anyone in particular. He just fired and fired again.

In Room 204, professor Liviu Librescu was lecturing on engineering when the first shoots rang out. He ran to the door and held it shut. Students tried to take cover, but as the gunfire got louder, they tugged open the windows and jumped.

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Bang. Bang. Time seemed to stop. Each sound was isolated, and each image. Students lying on the floor, pressing their feet against a classroom door to hold it closed as bullets flew above their heads. The chipped wood of a lectern hit by a bullet. Scattered notebooks. A tourniquet made from a torn sweatshirt.

Gene Cole, a custodian, was walking through the second floor in search of a co-worker when he saw a student lying in the corridor, wounded but struggling to get up. “There was blood all over the floor,” he said.

Cho approached, firing, and Cole fled downstairs.

At 9:45 a.m., police responded to a 911 call from Norris Hall. They found the front doors blockaded. A second e-mail went out to students and staff: “A gunman is loose on campus. Stay in buildings until further notice. Stay away from all windows.”

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Police began blaring warnings over loudspeakers: This is an emergency. Take shelter. Resident advisors went door to door in the dorms, pounding on walls, yelling at students to stay in their rooms -- or in some cases, to come down to a common area where they could all wait out the lockdown together.

“I was in shock,” said Janesa Wright, 18. “I thought I heard it wrong.”

Freshman Erin Kennedy said she, too, was unable to take it in: “I didn’t want to believe it was my school.”

The scene outside Norris was chaotic. Within moments of arriving, heavily armed officers had broken through the chained doors and stormed up the stairs, following the sound of gunshots. Law enforcement personnel lined the street outside, carrying rifles and assault weapons.

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They screamed at any student who wandered close: “Get back! Get back!”

But from outside, the terror was not obvious. Chris Hinkle, 18, heard the bang-bang-bang and assumed the noise had something to do with the construction work going on nearby. “Nobody,” he said, “was as worried as they should’ve been.”

From the window of a nearby building, Swedish exchange students Carl Nordin and Martin Avebro were bemused as they watched the commotion. They thought it was another bomb threat, like the two false alarms that had briefly shaken the campus in recent days.

Rolling a videotape (now posted on roanoke.com), Nordin and Avebro joked with the Virginia Tech students who joined them at the window, making fun of an overweight police officer.

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“This is so cliche,” a student told the Swedish visitors. “Your first day in America, you get this.”

“It’s just like in the movies,” one exchange student said.

Their laughter stopped as students, escorted by officers, began fleeing Norris Hall, hands in the air. An ambulance was pulled up to the sidewalk and a still body, strapped to a gurney, was loaded in.

The rest of the campus was eerily deserted. Outside Norris Hall, all was a blur. “People running in and out,” said Josh Ehlers, 19. “I’m still in disbelief.”

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The aftermath

The scale of the tragedy would not emerge for several hours.

At 10:16 a.m., students and staff got a third e-mail telling them that classes had been canceled. “Those on campus are asked to remain where they are, lock their doors and stay away from windows,” it said.

At 10:52, a fourth e-mail described a “multiple shooting with victims in Norris Hall.” Again, everyone was asked to stay inside.

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It was not until shortly after 1 p.m. that Campus Police Chief Wendell R. Flinchum made this announcement: “We believe campus is secure.” Slowly, students came out of their rooms.

Some went to Norris Hall. The sidewalk outside was stained with blood. In groups of twos and threes, others headed to counseling sessions held inside the AJ dorm. ROTC cadets gathered to pray at the War Memorial Chapel, on the vast green field at the heart of campus.

As the gray sky darkened in late afternoon, young men and women began to trickle out of AJ with pillows and stuffed animals under their arms. Some weren’t sure where they would sleep. They just knew they didn’t want to spend the night in that dorm.

By 6:30 p.m., Poor Billy’s bar in downtown Blacksburg was half-full. The TV was tuned to CNN, but the volume was low, drowned out by classic rock: the Beatles and the Grateful Dead.

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Ellen Strawderman, a 22-year-old senior, sat at the bar, drinking a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. “It’s just like this really weird dream,” she said.

At another bar, journalism instructor Roland Lazenby assessed the mood this way: “Everybody here is basically numb.”

Back at Cho’s dorm

At 7 p.m., law-enforcement officers rapped on the door of Harper Hall 2121.

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They went into Cho’s bedroom and began packing his belongings into brown bags.

According to the search warrant, police were seeking “tools, documents, computer hardware ... weapons, ammunition, explosives ... instructional manuals for criminal acts of mass destruction and acts of terror.”

The police spent five hours examining Cho’s room and interviewing roommates. When they left at midnight, they told Grewal that Cho was suspected in the mass shooting. He had been found dead in Norris Hall, apparently of a self-inflicted wound, the guns at his side, a receipt for one still in his backpack.

Grewal remembered running into Cho in the bathroom hours ago.

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So much had changed.

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erika.hayasaki@latimes.com

richard.fausset@latimes.com

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adam.schreck@latimes.com

This story was reported from Blacksburg by Hayasaki, Fausset and Schreck, and written by Times staff writer Stephanie Simon. Times staff writers Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Blacksburg and Greg Miller in Washington also contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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Tracking the shootings

In the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, a gunman killed 32 people Monday before taking his own life at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va.

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Timeline of events (All times Eastern)

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Here is a recap of the shooting rampage and efforts by university officials to warn faculty, staff and students via e-mail.

7:15 a.m.

Police receive first 911 call about West Ambler Johnston dormitory shooting. Students Ryan Clark and Emily Hilscher die at the dorm.

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8 a.m.

Classes begin.

8:25 a.m.

School officials meet to assess shooting and decide how to notify those on campus.

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9:26 a.m.

First e-mail announces shooting at West Ambler Johnston dormitory, urges caution.

9:30 a.m.

Campus locked down.

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9:45 a.m.

Police receive first 911 call to Norris Hall. In shooting rampage there, 31 people die, including the gunman. Among the dead are German professor Christopher Bishop and engineering professor Liviu Librescu, who were shot in their classrooms, and French class students Ross Alameddine, Daniel Cueva and Reema Samaha.

9:50 a.m.

Second e-mail announces gunman loose on campus, announces lockdown.

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10:20 p.m.

Third e-mail announces cancellation of classes.

10:52 a.m.

Fourth e-mail announces shooting at Norris Hall, reports gunman in custody.

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12:07 p.m.

Campus closed, Tuesday’s classes canceled.

About 1 p.m.

Police announce campus secure.

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Source: Published reports. Graphics reporting by Brady MacDonald


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