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Carlton native defends gunman's inclusion

BLACKSBURG, Va. -- In the dark of night and only two days removed from the carnage at Virginia Tech, Katelynn Johnson counted rocks. 29, 30, 31 blocks of "Hokie stone," the gray limestone used to build some Virginia Tech buildings, placed in a se...

BLACKSBURG, Va. -- In the dark of night and only two days removed from the carnage at Virginia Tech, Katelynn Johnson counted rocks.

29, 30, 31 blocks of "Hokie stone," the gray limestone used to build some Virginia Tech buildings, placed in a semicircle to memorialize the Virginia Tech victims.

"I got 32," the 27-year-old senior and Carlton native said. "I just lost it. I broke down. I was seething. I remember saying 'How could people be so mean?' "

Then Jim Keane, her boyfriend of five years, asked her a question, even though he already knew the answer.

"Do you want to get a 33rd stone?"

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"Yes."

Johnson revealed the story for the first time, solving the week-old mystery of the memorial to Seung-Hui Cho, the man who killed 32 people at Virginia Tech. The stone, quietly slid into a ring of memorials set up at the edge of the Drillfield, drew criticism from some people who find it unthinkable to honor a killer's memory alongside his 32 victims.

Johnson, a senior majoring in sociology and psychology, and Keane took the rock to the Drillfield at 4 a.m. April 19 to keep themselves anonymous, she said. She won't reveal who gave her the stone to protect the source from retribution.

She said she and Keane placed the stone anonymously because they weren't interested in making a statement or getting attention.

They stayed anonymous until Johnson outed herself with a letter to the Collegiate Times, the student newspaper. Johnson e-mailed the letter after reading Tuesday that someone had removed the stone. She thinks it was a miscommunication because the stone she and Keane placed has, to her knowledge, never been removed.

"We lost 33 Hokies that day, not 32," she wrote. "In my opinion, no life has less value than any other. Cho was a human being. ... Who am I to judge who has value and who doesn't? I am not in that position. Are you?"

Kelly White and her two children visited the semicircle of memorials Thursday, leaving 32 pink tulips -- one for each victim in last week's massacre. They also placed a tulip on the stone for Cho.

"Forgiveness is part of being freed from anger," said White, a Blacksburg resident with relatives who attended the school. "I try to teach my children that God loves everyone."

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Campus leaders, experts and those touched by the tragedy say there are several reasons for the spirit of forgiveness. Many people are too overcome by grief to think about anything else. The fact that Cho killed himself provided enough retribution, some say. Others say the forgiveness is rooted in the strong Christian values of the area.

Johnson said she has received hundreds of messages supporting placement of the stone for Cho.

"Out of close to 200 messages from Virginia Tech students and faculty ... and even some people close to the victims, all of them have thanked me for doing that and have agreed with the point of the stone," she said.

She got only a few negative responses, and only one from the Virginia Tech community.

"There have been some that don't agree, and I understand," she said.

The compassion is natural for Johnson.

"I feel like human life has value and should be mourned," she said.

After graduating in a week and a half, she plans to attend graduate school at Virginia Tech and earn a master's degree in sociology. Her senior thesis was on mental illness and higher education. The 2005 school shooting in Red Lake, Minn., that claimed 10 lives, including the gunman, happened not far from her hometown.

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"One of the most frustrating things in this entire ordeal has been the connection of the violence Cho showed and his mental illness," Johnson wrote in an e-mail to the News Tribune. "Mental illness does not equal violence. The two are rarely even correlated. To continue to perpetuate the myth that it somehow is, is dangerous and damaging to society but especially those who suffer with mental illnesses. They may never seek treatment because of those stigmas."

News Tribune staff writer Will Aschenmacher and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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