Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Once again the state of Virginia appears to be failing to live up to its commitments to the victims and families of the Virginia Tech massacre. This time it is the revision of the Governor’s Review Panel Report. The governor’s office and TriData, the firm that wrote the report, stacked the cards against the families from the outset—the two appear to be more concerned about appearances and processes than they are about getting at the truth.

When the families met with the governor for a second time in September, they were told that TriData would finish revising the report by the end of October. It is now the end of November and there is still no word on when the revised report will be completed. Furthermore, there has been no communication with the families to explain the delay. If you want to be cynical, you might speculate that TriData and the state of Virginia do not want the revised report out as long as the Pryde and Petersen law suit is pending. (The Pryde and Petersen families refused to go along with the settlement reached between the majority of the families and the state of Virginia.)

The families were granted a conference call with two TriData representatives, Hollis Stambaugh, one of the principal writers of the report, and Philip Schaenman, founder and President of TriData. Stambaugh and Schaenman were only willing to discuss the “process” of the revision. The two were unwilling or unable to discuss the substance of the revisions, despite the fact that the revisions were the purpose of the conference call in the first place. For example, neither Stambaugh nor Schaenman were willing to talk about the badly flawed timeline of events during the nearly two and one-half hours between the first two shootings at Ambler Johnston Hall and the killings at Norris Hall. One reason for this unwillingness may be that to admit there were wholesale inaccuracies and omissions in the timeline, would be an indictment of TriData’s research and writing of the report.

It is worthwhile to take a few moments to look at TriData, Stambaugh, and Schaenman. TriData relies heavily on federal and state contracts, and is best known for studying fire safety issues (not school shootings). TriData did conduct a study for the Federal Emergency Management Agency on police and emergency medical response to the shootings at Columbine. Let me emphasize something, however, the study was not an analysis of the crime; it was an analysis of the emergency responses. There is very little in TriData’s track record to indicate that it has the credentials to analyze a crime such as the Virginia Tech shootings.

The Washington Post reported that TriData’s other contract with the state of Virginia was to review the chaotic response to a false positive anthrax test at the Pentagon’s remote mail facility and a similar alarm at Defense Department sites in Fairfax County in March 2005. Again, this is hardly a stellar recommendation to do the job concerning Virginia Tech.

Hollis Stambaugh is the Director of the Center for Public Protection for System Planning Corporation’s TriData division. Ms. Stambaugh headed an intergovernmental assessment of response to Hurricane Isabel for the Governor of Virginia. She was also a key player in the anthrax review cited in the previous paragraph. Her ties to Virginia as a source of income appear to run deep. She might not want to examine the possibility that Virginia Tech University misled the review panel, or fed them misleading information and jeopardize future contracts. I know that she didn’t and she won’t discuss the substance of the report with the Virginia Tech families.

Philip Schaenman is the founder and president of System Planning Corporation’s TriData division. TriData describes itself as specializing in studies of fire protection, emergency medical services (EMS) and EMS management, hazardous materials, rescue and emergency management; and the development of practical indicators to measure the performance of state and local government emergency services. Nowhere do I see a reference to crime or crime scene analysis. Mr. Schaenman’s biography noted that his book “Providing Public Fire Education Works,” appears as chapters in the National Fire Prevention Administration Handbook on the same subject. That’s great—but, Virginia Tech did not burn down, it was the site of the worst school shooting in this nation’s history. Schaenman holds degrees in engineering and liberal arts, and he served on the NASA panel formulation criteria for spacecraft computers where he developed forecasts of aerospace computer technology—I do not see a crime scene specialist here.

The lack of credentials on crime analysis—coupled with a desire to win more lucrative contracts from the state of Virginia—may explain TriData’s stone-walling on the substance of the report. It may explain the stone-walling, but it is inexcusable. For example, a timeline is probably the most important part of the initial phase of a crime scene analysis. Yet Stambaugh and Schaenman would not comment on how the timeline of events was so wrong. Nor would they address the fact that TriData may have been fed wrong information by the University—further damaging the timeline. The thing the TriData representatives said is that they relied on verbal inputs and peoples’ recollections. This reliance on what appears to be hearsay is an incredibly poor methodology—certainly not worthy of examining the events of April 16, 2007.

Indeed, the there are so many timeline errors that some have speculated that the problem could not have been created solely by TriData alone based on bogus input. One parent put it this way, “With the amount of expertise and resources available to them, and the number of ‘eyes’ looking at that document prior to its publication, we believe that TriData did not act alone in creating such an erroneous and misleading end product. We believe there was direction being provided to TriData, the source of which may have been from within the panel and/or Richmond.”

The Virginia Tech families have done a herculean job of identifying errors in the Review Panel Report—specifically the timeline. Their efforts point out mistake, after mistake, after mistake. (Some of their corrections are listed at the end of this blog.) How a firm such as TriData that claims to be a research firm would allow those errors in the initial report boggles the mind. The families’ corrections have been given to the governor and to TriData, yet the families apparently will not be allowed to review the revision for accuracy before it is published. The delay in the revision and the lack of communication with the families, is giving rise to speculation that TriData will cherry-pick the corrections it wants to make and then use their public relations arm to tout their responsiveness to the families.

Don’t forget—your tax dollars are paying TriData! Before the process is over, TriData will be paid somewhere around three-quarters of a million dollars. And for doing the state’s biding they will certainly win more contracts.


August 16, 2009

Dear Governor Kaine,

This is my family’s response to your request for corrections pertaining to the Virginia Tech Panel Report published in August of 2007.

We believe that in addition to identifying specific “factual errors”, it is equally important to look at how factual errors connect to each other to get a bigger picture.

What follows is based on data that was available to the panel, TriData, and others as early as May of 2007, as well as statements contained in the panel report itself. Admittedly, our information was limited compared to what was presented to the panel, however, a picture still emerges.

Overall, my family believes;

1. That the timeline of events, and actions being taken, on the morning of April 16, 2007 following the WAJ shooting and before Norris Hall is built upon a false starting point that is not supported by fact.

2. That the 7:30-8:00 AM timeline entry was not simply a mistake.

3. That there were systemic failures of leadership relative to priority, readiness, and execution relative to campus safety, and those gaps were not adequately addressed by the panel report.

4. That there is more information concerning what went on before April 16th that has not yet been revealed.

5. That the investigation must be re-opened and include other expertise to critically examine all information available.

The delays associated with revealing the complete truth about April 16, 2007 that we have endured have gone on for far too long. We, respectfully, request that action be taken immediately rather than after your term is over.

One of the other families has created what we believe to be a relevant name for what has gone on these past 2 years. That name is “Hokiegate”.

Thank you,

Michael & Teresa Pohle

A. An Erroneous Timeline of Events – Why?

(Chap III, p 25) “7:30–8:00 a.m. A friend of Hilscher’s arrives at WAJ to join her for the walk to chemistry class. She is questioned by detectives and explains that on Monday mornings Hilscher’s boyfriend would drop her off and go back to Radford University where he was a student. She tells police that the boyfriend is an avid gun user and practices using the gun. This leads the police to seek him as a ‘person of interest’ and potential suspect.”

The foregoing passage presents a false timeline. According to Chief Flinchum, the interview actually began at 8:16AM, and resulted in a person of interest not being identified until, allegedly, 8:40-8:45AM. Hence, no one could have identified the Person of Interest (POI) until after this interview concluded. This latter time point connects well with the timing of the private e-mails to Richmond describing what was going on, and not to release anything.

1. With its expertise, knowledge, and supporting resources, how could the panel fail to establish an accurate timeline for the events after the shootings at WAJ? In any case, its acceptance of an erroneous timeline laid the foundation for subsequent false statements in the report.

2. On May 21, 2007, Chief Flinchum specifically told the panel that the interview leading to the discovery of the POI did not start until 8:16 AM. Inexplicably, the panel disregarded this highly significant information, although other elements of his input were included in the timeline. (Chief Flinchum’s presentation is attached.) Both the source of this false entry, and the reason(s) behind why this was done must be explained.

3. On May 21, 2007, Vice Provost of Student Affairs David Ford also spoke to the panel. Whereas Vice Provost Ford’s input receives almost two full pages (Chap VII, pp 81-82) in the report, only portions of Chief Flinchum’s input to the panel were included.

4. Although the panel had Chief Flinchum’s testimony about the factual timeline for three months prior to the publication of the report, it has never, before or since, made any effort to disclose or to account for this error in establishing a timeline.

5. Inexplicably, the panel failed to interview either the key witness (H. Haugh) or the cited Person of Interest (K. Thornhill).

6. If the panel had spoken with H. Haugh, she would have confirmed Chief Flinchum’s statement to the panel on May 21, 2007, of the interview’s true timeline.

(Chap VII, p 80) “In an interview with President Steger, members of the panel were told that the police reports to the Policy Group first described a possible ‘murder–suicide’ and then a ‘domestic dispute,’ and that the police had identified a suspect. After the area parking lots had been searched, the police reported the suspect probably had left the campus.”

7. Given that Chief Flinchum did not speak to President Steger until 8:10 AM, the panel did not convene until 8:25 AM, and the POI remained unidentified until, allegedly, 8:40-8:45 AM, the highlighted portion of the foregoing statement could be true only if the incorrect 7:30 – 8:00 AM timeline were true.

8. When the families met with Chief Flinchum in October 2008 at an event also attended by state law-enforcement and representatives of the Governor’s office, Chief Flinchum stated that the panel-report entry for the timeline was wrong.

9. At this same meeting, Chief Flinchum pointed out that the card-swipe records showing that Ms. Hilscher’s roommate (aka her friend) entered WAJ at 8:14 AM confirm that the 8:16 AM starting time for the interview is factually correct.

10. Also, again at this same meeting, Chief Flinchum stated that the police knew that Karl Thornhill (POI) had attended his class at Radford University that morning. His attendance there is behavior seemingly inconsistent with that of a bloody-footed murderer, and receives no mention at all in the panel report.

11. The panel report shows other time points that either card swipes or computer records unequivocally substantiate. Nothing, however, substantiates the 7:30 – 8:00 AM timeline that the report endorses – nothing.

12. Numerous actions that the police and the Policy Group took, as set down in the panel report, have their basis in the erroneous 7:30 – 8:00 AM timeline. For example:

a. (Chap III, p 26): “8:16 – 9:24 a.m. “Officers search for Hilscher’s boyfriend.” (This is a false/misleading statement that qualifies as true only if the 7:30 – 8:00 AM timeline is true.)

b. (Chap III, p 26): “Chief Flinchum provides updated information via phone to the [VT] Policy Group regarding progress made in the investigation. He informs them of a possible suspect, who is probably off campus.” This is a false/misleading statement that qualifies as true only if the 7:30 – 8:00 AM timeline is true. Only Chief Flinchum and President Steger spoke at 8:10 AM; neither spoke to the Policy Group during that call. There was no suspect, or person of interest identified when the Policy Group meeting began at 8:25AM.

c. (Chap VII, p 80): “Both the VTPD and the BPD immediately put their emergency response teams (ERTs) (i.e., SWAT teams) on alert and staged them at locations from which they could respond rapidly to the campus or the city. They also had police on campus looking for the gunman while they pursued the boyfriend.” The underlined portion of the last sentence is false because the SWAT team was alerted at 8:15 AM (Chap III, p26) and the police had not yet identified the boyfriend as a POI until, allegedly, 8:40-8:45 AM. Subsequently, the statement could be true only if the 7:30 – 8:00 AM timeline was accurate, which it is not.

13. The panel never explored or explained the causal relationship between the 9:24 AM stop of Mr. Thornhill and the issuing of the first vague message to the campus at 9:26 AM. A gun-powder test takes more than two minutes, and the two-minute interval between these two events would strike few unbiased observers as coincidental.

Boyfriend Questioning (Chap VII, p 85): “At 9:30 a.m., the boyfriend of Emily Hilscher was stopped in his pickup truck on a road. He was cooperative and shocked to hear that his girlfriend has just been killed.”

14. This statement conflicts with the entry on p 26 of Chap III, which states that the police stopped Mr. Thornhill at 9:24 AM.

a. How could this POI have known that someone had murdered his girlfriend? What did he know that the panel failed to find out by omitting to interview him? We do know that Heather Haugh and Karl Thornhill (POI) were friends, and were told that she sent a text message to him following her interview that his girlfriend had been shot.

b. The phrase “on a road” avoids acknowledging the fact that the road was Prices Fork Road, and that Prices Fork Road traverses the Virginia Tech campus. Why would he have gone to class at Radford and then return to Virginia Tech if he was attempting to flee?

B. Leadership Failures – What Is a University’s First Priority?

On the morning of April 16, 2007, Virginia Tech had at least two procedures in place that were important, legally obligatory, and relevant to what the administration must do in an emergency. The first was their Emergency Response Plan (ERP); the second was their Timely Warning Procedure (TWP), available in the document “Campus Safety: A Shared Responsibility,” published in 2005 in compliance with the Federal Clery Act. State and federal law require the implementation of the tenets of both these procedures. The panel report does not contain any mention of whether these procedures, as written, were followed. Additionally, there were no recommendations or conclusions stating that schools MUST follow what they say they will do. This was completely within the panel’s scope as directed by Executive Order 53 (Chap I, item #6, p6)

Emergency Response Plan

I submit that on 4/16/07 Virginia Tech’s administration did not follow the ERP as written. Indeed, had VT leadership made it a priority after the Morva Incident in August 2006 to revise its ERP to include what they would do if a shooter appears on campus, and update it to align with state and federal guidelines, its Policy Group would have been far better prepared vs. spending precious time discussing the same Morva incident. (Chap VII, p 80). Despite this opportunity, neglecting their leadership duty, they did nothing to improve the procedures in their own ERP. Further, the panel makes no mention of, nor conclusion about, the priority, commitment, and responsibility that university leadership has concerning safety.

The panel report states, “The VTPD has authority under the Emergency Response Plan and its interpretation in practice to request that an emergency message be sent, but as related in Chapter II, the police did not have the capability to send a message themselves” (Chap II, p 19).

First, what does the first part of that statement mean? Either VT followed the ERP as written, or it did not. Although no university can anticipate every possibility, its leadership team should have updated the ERP and implemented new procedures, using the best information available. Although no such action occurred at Virginia Tech, the panel does not indict VT’s leadership for this failure. Recommendation II-2 (Chap II, p 19) sets forth common knowledge for any university leadership in the Commonwealth, but declines to rebuke the VT leadership for its systemic failures relative to campus safety.

Second, even though the VTPD had the “authority” under the ERP as written, they were never provided the tools to comply with this, outdated, plan. The panel report never specifically addresses this leadership failure. Why not?

Third, the report provides no reference or cites any document to suggest that VT leadership trained its employees to understand what its accepted ERP “practice” is in such situations. Why not?

Campus Safety: A Shared Responsibility – The Federal Clery Act

The only reference to the Federal Clery Act in the panel report appears in (Chap II, p 19, II-5). It consists of a simple recommendation: “Universities and colleges must comply with the Clery Act, which requires timely public warnings of imminent danger. Our legislators should clearly and specifically define the term “timely” in the federal law.”

In 2005, Virginia Tech published a document titled “Campus Safety: A Shared Responsibility.” Publishing such a document is a requirement of the Federal Clery Act and it was in effect on April 16, 2007.

The following statements are contained in this document.

i. (Page 1) “Virginia Tech has designed policies and regulations in order to create a safer and more harmonious environment for the members of its community. All campus community members and visitors of the university are required to obey these regulations. These policies not only reflect the university’s high standards of conduct, but also local, state and federal laws. Observed and enforced, they create a high degree of safety for the university community.”

ii. (Page 6) “At times it may be necessary for "timely warnings" to be issued to the university community. If a crime(s) occur and notification is necessary to warn the University of a potential dangerous situation then the Virginia Tech Police Department should be notified. The police department will then prepare a release and the information will be disseminated to all students, faculty and staff and to the local community.”

As opposed to the language in the ERP, which the panel report cites as “cumbersome, untimely, and problematic”, etc. (Chap 7, p 80), both the requirement and the process for issuing a timely warning appear in this document in clear and concise terms.

Nothing in the panel report suggests that VT’s leadership ever conducted any discussions about executing this timely-warning procedure, or that the Chief of Police, the VTPD, or the Policy Group ever took any action to execute the procedure as directed. Nothing in the report alludes to this requirement. This absence of comment constitutes a serious omission, especially given the unambiguous nature of the notification procedure.

At a minimum, Chief Flinchum, other VTPD officers on the scene, and possibly Dr. Ed Spencer knew that they had no suspect, no person of interest, no weapon, no witnesses, and bloody footprints leaving the scene as early as 7:40 AM They knew all this considerably before Chief Flinchum’s first phone conversation with President Steger at 8:10 AM.

During that call at 8:10 AM, Chief Flinchum did not share all the facts of the situation with Dr. Steger.

Chief Flinchum failed to notify Dr. Steger and the Policy Group that he had deployed his SWAT team, staging it at the Blacksburg police department at 8:15AM (Chap III, p 26). At that time, the police still had no suspect and had still not identified any person of interest.

Chief Flinchum failed to inform Dr. Steger and the Policy Group that police were on campus looking for the gunman while they were also deploying SWAT teams (Chap VII, p 80). At this time, the police still had no suspect, nor had they yet identified a person of interest.

Based on the forgoing information, this situation met the conditions for issuing a warning by the Chief of Police per the timely-warning procedure. The comment from the panel relative to defining the word “timely” is an insult, especially given that private e-mails were sent to people in the Gov. office beginning at 8:45AM advising of a shooter on the loose, as well as the timing for the second warning message which was sent within 5 minutes after the Administration was informed of what was happening in Norris Hall.

Contrary to the procedures in the Emergency Response Plan, “Campus Safety: A Shared Responsibility” gave Chief Flinchum the responsibility and the authority to issue a necessary warning without any requirement for pre-authorization from any member of the administration.

As was the case with the Emergency Response Plan, the VTPD was never equipped to comply with what was required. This was a failure of Leadership.

The panel report made no mention of this Clery procedure, nor did it point out that this procedure and the Emergency Response Plan were in conflict with each other.

In our opinion, these leadership failures should include the VT Board of Visitors for neglecting to provide oversight and direction to the administration about establishing campus safety as a top priority, such as:

Instituting robust, up-to-date, and consistent safety procedures that function as living documents.

Ensuring that the university law enforcement can execute approved procedures as written, and the administration is committed to maintaining safety as the highest priority.

Acknowledging that the BOV must set the priority, measurement criteria, and accountability for the University relative to safety, and provide the needed oversight to ensure this is done. This is required as per Article I, Section 5, of their By-Laws, as well as applicable statute(s).

Article I

Section 5. Responsibilities of the Board

As public trustees the members of the Board have the overall responsibility and authority, subject to constitutional and statutory limitations, for the continuing operation and development of the institution as a state land-grant university, and for the evolving policies within which it must function. Much of this authority necessarily is delegated to the President, who serves as agent of the Board and chief executive officer of the University.

The most important responsibility of the Board is the trustee obligation to insure that the University's educational and research programs effectively meet the evolving needs of Virginia's citizens to the fullest extent possible within the statutory mission of the institution. Similarly in a national context, the Board's oversight responsibilities extend to federally mandated programs.

The formulation of the basic policies under which every aspect of the University's operations are carried out, as well as the implementation of those policies, consequently are subject to the Board's review, possible modification, and ultimate approval. However it is at the policy level, rather than the operational level, that the Board's responsibilities are paramount.

By statute, the Board is charged with the care, preservation, and improvement of university property and with the protection and safety of students, faculty, and staff on the property. The Board also is charged with regulating the government and discipline of students and, in respect to the government of the University, may make such regulations as the Board deems expedient, not contrary to law. The Board has authority over the roads and highways within the University campus and may prohibit entrance to the property of undesirable and disorderly persons or eject such persons from the property (§23-122, Code of Virginia, as amended).

C. Leadership Failures – Cook Counseling Center?

1. The recent news about the discovery of Cho’s “misplaced” medical records, and the panel not interviewing Dr. Miller, is very significant. This is regardless of what is actually contained in the files. What is missing from the report was any discussion about how medical records could be missing in the first place, whether the problem was systemic of record keeping deficiencies at Cook, and what had been done, or not done, about correcting that deficiency. How is it possible that 9 months following Cho’s last reported contact with the Center that his records, as well as others, could still be missing given strict state and federal laws?

a. (Chap 3, p28) “September 6–12 [2006] Professor Lisa Norris, another of Cho’s writing professors, alerts the Associate Dean of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, Mary Ann Lewis, about him, but the dean finds “no mention of mental health issues or police reports” on Cho.”

b. The panel report contains no discussion, or recommendations, concerning the serious nature of failing to maintain records, or what actions did VT leadership take to resolve that situation. Consistent with the deficiencies discussed in section B, I submit this is yet another example of failed leadership and oversight.

c. The families received an e-mail on June 18, 2007 from Dr. Steger concerning Cho’s Medical records. As you will see from the attached, there is no indication of any records being lost or missing, yet, we now know that was the case even before April 16, 2007.

Michael & Teresa Pohle

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