Chilling portrait of the gunman emerges

The gunman who massacred 32 people at Virginia Tech university was identified on Tuesday as a student from South Korea and a troubled loner whose behavior had sometimes alarmed those around him.

As students and teachers grieved at a tearful memorial service led by President George Bush, police said Cho Seung-Hui (23) acted alone on Monday in carrying out the deadliest shooting rampage in modern US history.

”Those whose lives were taken did nothing to deserve their fate. They were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Bush told a sombre crowd that packed the university’s 10 000-seat basketball arena to capacity.

Victims’ friends and family members sobbed in each other’s arms as speakers took the podium to comfort them. Many of the mourners wore maroon and orange, the school’s colors.

The shooting spree on a sprawling rural campus in south-western Virginia renewed heated debate over gun control in the United States.

It prompted foreign critics to rail against a ”gun culture” protected by the Western world’s most lenient gun-control laws. In Italy, the leftist Il Manifesto newspaper said the shooting was ”as American as apple pie”.

Though Cho’s motive remained unclear, a chilling portrait of the gunman emerged as details of the bloodbath surfaced.

Cho, who immigrated to the United States 15 years ago and was raised in suburban Washington, DC, killed himself after opening fire in classrooms where he apparently chained doors to prevent escape before cutting down 30 victims one by one.

He used two handguns, which police on Tuesday confirmed he had purchased legally at a Virginia gun shop, and stopped only to reload. Police have stopped short of saying Cho was responsible for the shooting deaths of two other people two hours earlier at a dormitory on the campus, but said tests showed the same gun was used in both incidents.

Before the shootings, Cho left a rambling note lashing out at ”rich kids,” ”debauchery” and ”deceitful charlatans” on campus, the Chicago Tribune reported, citing investigative sources.

Steven Flaherty, Virginia state police superintendent, said there was no reason to suspect that Cho left a suicide note, but that police were reviewing his ”considerable” writings.

Disturbing passages

Neighbours, roommates, and teachers described Cho as quiet and withdrawn, but one former classmate said he was not surprised when he found out the shooter’s identity.

”Looking back, he fit the exact stereotype of what one would typically think of as a ‘school shooter’ — a loner, obsessed with violence, and serious personal problems,” former classmate Ian MacFarlane wrote on an AOL blog site.

AOL News posted on the web two plays that MacFarlane, now an AOL employee, said were written by Cho. In one, characters talk of paedophilia and attack each other with chainsaws, and in the other disgruntled students discuss their desire to kill a teacher they compare to a ”parasite”.

Lucinda Roy, an English professor, told CNN she became concerned after Cho’s creative writing instructor came to her about disturbing passages he had written.

She said she took his writings to university officials, who said nothing could be done, and referred him to the university’s counselling services.

The gunman’s uncle, Sung Yeol Cho, appeared bewildered when reached by telephone at his cleaning business in Maryland.

”We’re really shocked,” he told Reuters. ”I am learning about this from the news.”

The dead were found in at least four classrooms as well as a stairwell. Cho was found sprawled among them, having taken his own life, police said.

Twelve students remained hospitalised in stable condition on Tuesday, officials said.

The campus, where there are more than 25 000 full-time students, reeled with shock and grief. A crowd of several thousand filled most of the field in the neighbouring football arena for the memorial service on a sunny spring day.

Many students said they felt exhausted and numb. Some shook with sobs as the hymn Amazing Grace played.

”We’re just trying to cope with everything,” said Jack Nicholson (21) of Leonardtown, Maryland. ”It’s just been crazy.”

University president Charles Steger and law enforcement officials on Monday defended their response to the shootings.

Many students have expressed anger that they were not warned of any danger until more than two hours after the first attack at a dormitory — and then only in an email from the university.

Virginia Governor Tim Kaine said at a news conference he would appoint within two days a team of independent officials to examine the response to the shootings.

More than 30 000 people die from gunshot wounds every year in the United States and there are more guns in private hands than in any other country. A powerful gun lobby and grassroots support for gun ownership rights have largely thwarted attempts to tighten controls. – Reuters

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