'In Our Backyards': Cho's Hometown Stunned

You can leave the campus of Virginia Tech, put the town of Blacksburg behind you, drive 200 miles northeast through Virginia and pull off the interstate when the sign says Centreville, Va., and in a way you're right back again in the shock and sorrow of Monday's massacre in which 33 people died.

This subdued and pretty bedroom community and communities around it were home to five of Monday's victims -- Maxine Turner, Mary Read, Leslie Sherman, Reema Samaha and Erin Peterson -- and also the gunman, Seung-hui Cho.

Samaha and Peterson both attended Westfield High, which is located in Centreville, and so did Cho. That brought the Virginia Tech killings home in a way that nobody wanted.

"I was watching the news yesterday, and it seemed so far," said Gabriela Tasende, a Centreville resident. "It was sad, but it seemed so far. And then this morning, it was such a shock to see it right in our backyards. And even though it sounds like a cliché, you know, you say, 'It doesn't happen in my neighborhood.' It's true. Sometimes you don't think it's ever going to happen in your neighborhood."

Sarah DeFluri knew Cho slightly because they shared classes in high school and once at Virginia Tech. She said she'd never sensed he was capable of the violence that erupted this week -- though on Monday, after the shootings, she and her friends thought of him briefly.

"Before we found out who the shooter was, my roommates and I were watching the news and we were all, 'What if it were Seung?'" she said. "But then we thought it was too weird -- we're just accusing this poor guy. He's too shy to do anything like that. But his name definitely came up before we knew."

From Centreville to Tech

Centreville is considered a pretty pleasant place to live, a good place to raise kids, and a lot of those kids go to Virginia Tech.

Bonnie Hobbs, a reporter who has covered Centreville for 15 years for the local Centre View newspaper, has written a lot about the town's kids, including Reema Samaha, several times because she was sort of a school star -- a dancer. Hobbs still has a showbill highlighting Samaha's appearance in a school production of "Oklahoma."

Now, Reema is dead.

And Centerville, like Blacksburg to the south, has become a magnet for the news media. Members of the media camped earlier this week in front of the home where the killer grew up and at the school he attended. Residents don't take kindly to the intrusion.

"Asking the children how they felt about walking by the shooter's house, they just have no business doing that," said Theresa DeFluri, a local mother. "The kids don't need to be part of that, and I think people are very upset at the way that was handled."

But beyond the media presence, which has thinned significantly, even outside Cho's family home, the story of what happened in Blacksburg was brought home to Centreville by Virginia Tech students who came home this week.

DeFluri, a senior who left campus to escape the turmoil, said she can't quite leave it all behind, particularly when she dreams at night.

"I've been home since Tuesday morning," she said. "I go through periods where I'm doing fine, I don't really feel anything. But then, especially at night, it's really hard, and I've been having dreams about it the past two days."

The dreams, she said, are "not even at Virginia Tech, just having dreams that people that I'm with and I are being shot at, just things like that. Half the time, I don't even remember them, just wake up feeling upset."

Identified With a Killer?

The area around Centreville has a significant Korean-American population that already feels it may somehow be identified with Cho and his crime, a feeling complicated by what some members of the community told us was a sense of shame that he came from among them.

But vigils held this week have made clear the community's shock and outrage, and people like businessman Rye Park have argued forcefully that Cho's guilt is his alone.

"The shooter could have been any nationality," he said. "He could have been anybody. The shooter is just a sick man with some mental problems. I really don't know why the word 'Korean' is going through the entire town."

DeFluri, whose friends are mostly of Asian descent, was adamant on a similar point about the killer.

"I've known him since high school, and it has nothing to do with the fact that he's Asian. I can honestly say that with no doubt," she said.

She worried about her Asian neighbors being tarred by the massacre, and also about her school's good name.

"It's just so sad to me," she said, "because now Columbine to me is now just so synonymous with violence and death, and I don't want that to happen to Virginia Tech. Because honestly, it's been the best four years of my life spent there, and it's such an amazing school, and I don't want it to be defined by this."