BLACKSBURG, Va. – Long before he boiled over, Virginia Tech gunman Cho Seung-Hui was picked on, pushed around and laughed at over his shyness and the strange way he talked when he was a schoolboy in suburban Washington, former classmates say.
Chris Davids, a Virginia Tech senior who graduated from Westfield High School in Chantilly, Va., with Cho in 2003, recalled that the South Korean immigrant almost never opened his mouth and would ignore attempts to strike up a conversation.
Once, in English class, the teacher had the students read aloud, and when it was Cho's turn, he just looked down in silence, Davids recalled. Finally, after the teacher threatened him with an F for participation, Cho started to read in a strange, deep voice that sounded "like he had something in his mouth," Davids said.
"As soon as he started reading, the whole class started laughing and pointing and saying, 'Go back to China,"' Davids said.
Cho shot 32 people to death and committed suicide Monday in the deadliest one-man shooting rampage in modern U.S. history. The high school classmates' accounts add to the psychological portrait that is beginning to take shape, and could shed light on the video rant Cho mailed to NBC in the middle of his rampage at Virginia Tech.
In the often-incoherent video, the 23-year-old Cho portrays himself as persecuted and rants about rich kids.
"Your Mercedes wasn't enough, you brats," says Cho, who came to the U.S. at about age 8 in 1992 and whose parents work at a dry cleaners in suburban Washington. "Your golden necklaces weren't enough, you snobs. Your trust funds wasn't enough. Your vodka and cognac wasn't enough. All your debaucheries weren't enough. Those weren't enough to fulfill your hedonistic needs. You had everything."
Among the victims of the massacre were two other Westfield High graduates: Reema Samaha and Erin Peterson. Both young women graduated from the high school last year. Police said it is not clear whether Cho singled them out.
Stephanie Roberts, 22, a fellow member of Cho's graduating class at Westfield High, said she never witnessed anyone picking on Cho in high school.
"I just remember he was a shy kid who didn't really want to talk to anybody," she said. "I guess a lot of people felt like maybe there was a language barrier."
But she said friends of hers who went to middle school with Cho told her they recalled him getting picked on there.
"There were just some people who were really mean to him and they would push him down and laugh at him," Roberts said Wednesday. "He didn't speak English really well and they would really make fun of him."
Virginia Tech student Alison Heck said a suitemate of hers on campus — Christina Lilick — found a mysterious question mark scrawled on the dry erase board on her door. Lilick went to the same high school as Cho, according to Lilick's Facebook page. Cho once scrawled a question mark on the sign-in sheet on the first day of a literature class, and other students came to know him as "the question mark kid."
"I don't know if she knew that it was him for sure," Heck said. "I do remember that that fall that she was being stalked and she had mentioned the question mark. And there was a question mark on her door."
Heck added: "She just let us know about it just in case there was a strange person walking around our suite."
Lilick could not immediately be located for comment, via e-mail or telephone.
Regan Wilder, 21, who attended Virginia Tech, high school and middle school with Cho, said she was in several classes with Cho in high school, including advanced-placement calculus and Spanish. She said he walked around with his head down, and almost never spoke. And when he did, it was "a real low mutter, like a whisper."
As part of an exam in Spanish class, students had to answer questions in Spanish on tape, and other students were so curious to know what Cho sounded like that they waited eagerly for the teacher to play his recording, she said. She said that on the tape, he did not speak confidently but did seem to know Spanish.
Wilder recalled high school teachers trying to get him to participate, but "he would only shrug his shoulders or he'd give like two-word responses, and I think it just got to the point where teachers just gave up because they realized he wasn't going to come out of the shell he was in, so they just kind of passed him over for the most part as time went on."
She 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, she said.
Wilder said Cho wasn't any friendlier in college, where "he always had that same damn blank stare, like glare, on his face. And I'd always try to make eye contact with him because I recognized the kid because I'd seen him for six years, but he'd always just look right past you like you weren't there."
In other developments, Gov. Timothy Kaine is appointing a five- to seven-member panel to investigate the shootings, the governor's office said. The panel will review Cho's mental health history and how police responded to the tragedy. The panel will submit a report in two to three months.
University officials also announced that all of Cho's student victims would be awarded degrees posthumously, and that other students terrorized by the shootings might be allowed to end the semester immediately without consequences.
Eleven people hurt in the attack remained hospitalized, at least one in serious condition.
Authorities on Wednesday disclosed that more than a year before the massacre, Cho had been accused of sending unwanted messages to two women and was taken to a psychiatric hospital on a magistrate's orders and was pronounced a danger to himself. But he was released with orders to undergo outpatient treatment.
Also, Cho's twisted, violence-filled writings and menacing, uncommunicative demeanor had disturbed professors and students so much that he was removed from one English class and was repeatedly urged to get counseling.
On Wednesday, NBC received a package containing a rambling and often incoherent 23-page written statement from Cho, 28 video clips and 43 photos — many of them showing Cho, in a military-style vest and backward baseball cap, brandishing handguns. A Postal Service time stamp reads 9:01 a.m. — between the two attacks on campus.
The package helps explain one mystery: where the gunman was and what he did during that two-hour window between the first burst of gunfire, at a high-rise dorm, and the second attack, at a classroom building.
"You had a hundred billion chances and ways to have avoided today," a snarling Cho says on video. "But you decided to spill my blood. You forced me into a corner and gave me only one option. The decision was yours. Now you have blood on your hands that will never wash off."
Col. Steve Flaherty, superintendent of the Virginia State Police, said Thursday that the material contained little they did not already know. Flaherty said he was disappointed that NBC decided to broadcast parts of it.
"I just hate that a lot of people not used to seeing that type of image had to see it," he said.
"I saw his picture on TV, and when I did I just got chills," said Kristy Venning, a junior from Franklin County, Va. "There's really no words. It shows he put so much thought into this and I think it's sick."
With a backlash developing against the media for airing the images, FOX News said it would stop running them, and other networks said they would severely limit their use.
"It has value as breaking news," said ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider, "but then becomes practically pornographic as it is just repeated ad nauseam."