April 18, 2007 — -- By any measure, they were a quiet unassuming immigrant family living the American dream.
After moving to the United States from South Korea in 1992, Sung and Hyang Cho set up a dry cleaning business near Washington, D.C. The couple lived in a two-story cream-colored town house in the upper-middle-class Sully Station neighborhood of Centreville, Va. And their daughter, Sun-Kyung, who graduated from Princeton in 2004, moved back home while she worked as a State Department contractor.
But that dream was shattered after their son Seung-hui Cho's murderous Monday morning rampage at Virginia Tech University, where authorities believe he killed 32 students and professors before turning his gun on himself.
At the end of that tragic day, FBI agents and state police officers pulled up in six cars and searched the Cho home in Centreville for 90 minutes as officers moved in and out of the house taking pictures. By the time the media swarmed the house yesterday morning, the family was gone, escorted by the police to an undisclosed location. According to a South Korean Embassy official quoted in the Korean media, the couple was hospitalized for shock.
It was every parent's nightmare, magnified a hundred times -- to see a child descend into depression, commit murder and mayhem, and take his own life. For the Chos, it must have been all the more poignant, since their son's path diverged so widely from their daughter's journey.
By anyone's criteria, Sun-Kyung Cho is an accomplished young woman. At Princeton, where she majored in economics, she extended her learning by getting some real-world experience.
Motivated by an interest in observing actual labor conditions in a developing country, she got an internship at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok during the summer before her senior year. "They were the most amazing three months of my life," Cho told the Princeton Weekly Bulletin upon her return, describing how moving it was for her to see impoverished young Burmese girls making ceramics and garments in factories along the Thai-Burmese border.
She also wrote for the campus newspaper, The Daily Princetonian, contributing at least two articles, one of which was about sweatshop labor.
Cho currently works as a contractor at the State Department. A colleague in her office told ABCNEWS.com that Cho is taking an undefined leave of absence to cope with the tragedy.
Sung Cho, 61, and Hyang Cho, 56, kept a low profile in the small town, attending services at the Korean Presbyterian Church and planting lettuce in the backyard of their home.
They've come a long way from their days in poverty in a suburb of Seoul, according to their former landlord Lim Bong-ae. Back then, the couple lived in a rented basement apartment, which is usually the cheapest unit in an apartment building, he told a Korean newspaper.
The couple ran a used bookstore, Seung-hui's grandfather told another Korean newspaper. When relatives invited the family to the United States, he said they jumped at the chance to "provide better education for the children."
The unnamed grandfather was shocked at his family's connection to the massacre. "My grandson Seung-hui was very shy. I can't believe he did such a thing," he told the paper.
When Seung-hui was in first grade, attending Shinchang Elementary, the family moved, first settling in Detroit. They soon relocated to Virginia and eventually bought the three-bedroom house in Centreville for $145,000 in 1997.
The couple was very unassuming. They did not take part in many community activities, were not registered to vote, and most neighbors could hardly recall talking to them.
"They're very quiet, very nice people. ... They worked very hard for him. It's very sad," their next-door neighbor, Abdul Shash, told The Associated Press.
"They were hardworking," said Jeff Ahn, president of the League of Korean Americans in Virginia. "They valued education, just like any other parents in this country, and they worked sometimes 12, 13 hours a day to send a daughter to Princeton and to send their son to Virginia Tech."