John Giduck’s book on the Virginia Tech tragedy sets lofty goals, but from the outset, his willingness to resort to name-calling (page 18, “ignorant experts”) for those who disagree with him cheapens his work and destroys his credibility. As I said in my first blog on Shooter Down, there always is a need for a book that pays tribute to the men and women of our first responders: the police, the fire fighters, and the medics. These men and women are true heroes and all to often do not get the credit and praise they deserve. It is absolutely true that many who deal with crimes scenes as large and violent as Virginia Tech, suffer from prolonged psychological problems. These can include flashbacks to what they saw as well as nightmares. These problems can be so severe that the FBI offers psychological counseling to their agents who witness the horrific crime scenes.
However, there are so many problems with Giduck’s book that it is hard to know where to begin. I could write volumes about the book’s errors, omissions, and faulty characterizations of the victims’ families’ actions and motives. Furthermore, the book’s numerous problems undercut some of the valid points the author makes. For example, by the time you get to Giduck’s accurate account of the media circus and the unscrupulous actions on the part of some members of the media, the reader is suffering from whip-lash because the author has already bounced around from fact, to fiction, to fantasy.
I have to begin with his reference to the families on page 15. Giduck writes: “The families of the victims hate them (the police and first responders) for what they couldn’t do.” This comment is especially scurrilous. I know many of the victims’ families. I have met with some in person and communicated with others by email. Not one time have I heard them express “hatred” for any of the police or first responders. The word “hate” is your word, Mr. Giduck.
I tell the students in my classes on intelligence and crime analysis that when you write you are exposing and telling something about yourself. The use of the word “hate” as well as the rest of the emotionally charged vocabulary you use, Mr. Giduck, is a window into your mindset, not the thinking of the families.
I also have to question the motive behind the book. Mr. Giduck, your company, Archangel, sells its services to law enforcement agencies. I notice that in your credentials you zero in on the highly publicized, emotion-laden tragedies such as Beslan and Virginia Tech. Where were you when the shooting took place at the Appalachian School of Law? I guess three dead and three wounded cannot compare with the headline grabbing 32 dead and at least 17 wounded. Your selectivity in picking only the big-name shootings, undercuts you credibility. Furthermore, even when you do analyze Virginia Tech, there is a lack of willingness to analyze what went wrong. You posture yourself as the defender of the police, at the expense of the truth. Your lack of objectivity undercuts you credibility; the book appears to be a blatant attempt to drum-up business, business that is based on the sufferings of others.
There also is irony in your words, Mr. Gudick. On page 24 you write, “It was the belief of the Archangel Investigating Team (‘Archangel Team’) that no conclusion would be of value to U.S. law enforcement, first responders and schools if accuracy could not be assured, or at least attempted to the greatest degree possible.” Well, let’s take a look at some of your accuracy:
1. You refer to shooting-victim Colin Goddard several times, but on page 230 you refer to him as Kevin, not Colin. That is not a typo. That is inaccurate writing and sloppy proof reading. Some may think this may be a minor point, but it is telling in terms of Giduck’s attention to detail and accuracy.
2. Shooter Down should be a serious analysis of this nation’s worst campus massacre. But, the book goes back and forth between fiction and analysis. Your repeated fictional presentation of what may have been going on in Cho’s mind is not only distracting, but is complete fantasy. This use of fantasy is a literary technique appropriate for fiction, not in crime analysis. Furthermore, in the author’s credentials, I see no reference to any training in psychology. The fictionalized part of the book undercuts the serious nature of what the author apparently intends to do—analyze a major crime. Mr. Giduck you need to make up your mind, are you writing fiction or analysis.
3. You do not give a balanced account of police actions between 0715 and 0940 on the morning of April 16, 2007. Crime analysis 101 teaches not to zero in on a hypothetical “person of interest” when you have no real evidence against that person. They had two dead students in a campus dormitory and bloody footprints leading away from the crime scene. Why didn’t the police advocate a warning or a lockdown? The police chose to theorize that there was a love triangle involving the dead student, Emily Hilscher, the Ryan Clark (the RA), and Hilscher’s boyfriend, Karl Thornhill.
You are precise in giving the timing of many of the events, but on page 176 you write, “Heather Haugh had confirmed that the relationship (Emily’s) with Ryan, the male RA, was strictly platonic.” The timing of this information is critical—at that point, Karl Thornhill became much less of a person of interest. I read pages 173-185 and noted your repeated references to specific times. Then I noted you fell silent when it came to the timing of Haugh’s revelation. The clear implication is that the police knew early on that a love triangle was out of the question. You are aware of when the police knew the facts about why a love triangle was not in play and yet you do not reveal a time. Instead, you repeatedly refers to a possible love triangle in order to give the police cover for their inaction.
4. Shooter Down repeatedly tries to pass off conjecture as fact. Take a look at page 100 dealing with Cho and the Morva incident. You write, “Cho would have sat in his dorm, perhaps wandered the campus like many of the students, looking at the enormity of it all. He would have seen the unprecedented law enforcement response. The news media would have explained to him how long it took those 400-plus cops to arrive. He would have seen that the security guard (sic.) and police officers had been defenseless against a single armed prisoner who had easily wrestled an officer’s gun from his hand … He would have wondered if he could do that. … He would have watched coverage over hours on national cable news channels. He would have craved the fame …” How could you possibly know where Cho was or what he was doing during the Morva incident?
5. On page 145, your own words appear to indict the school and its police. “In addition to the Morva manhunt, Virginia Tech and its police department were no strangers to terrorist threats and other potential critical incidents. VT had been targeted by ELF, the Earth Liberation Front, and ALF, the Animal Liberation Front, in the past. For two small town police departments they had clearly entered the world-at-large, and were dealing with big city threats.” Yes, both the school and its police had experience in dealing with serious threats. So, why did they hesitate and dilly-dally while others acted? For example, Virginia Tech’s veterinary school locked down, the Blacksburg public schools locked, and trash collection was suspended. Virginia Tech had warned and locked down in the Morva case, why not now?
6. You attempts to justify the case that Karl Thornhill was the person of interest because of his keen interest in guns, being an avid shooter, and photos of him holding guns. I live in rural Virginia and I would be hard pressed to find a young man who is not interested in guns, who is not an avid shooter, and who does not have pictures of himself with weapons. Your evidence is flimsy and certainly does not warrant the police’s concentration on Thornhill as the person of interest—particularly after the love triangle theory was debunked.
7. On page 175, you asserts that between 0810 and 0925 “that morning the police had been working feverishly to identify, track and find the killer of the two kids searching everywhere on the sprawling campus and the network of rural roads and towns that satellite Blacksburg. During this period Chief Flinchum provided updated information via telephone to the Virginia Tech Policy Group (VTPG) regarding the status of the investigation into the WAJ shootings. Chief Flinchum informed the VTPG that a possible suspect had been identified, and that he was most likely off campus. The ‘possible suspect’ was Hilscher’s boyfriend, Karl Thornhill.” If we take you at your words, and if we believe the police were ‘feverishly” trying to find the killer, then why was an alert not part of this “feverish” activity. In Chief Flinchum’s many conversations with the Policy Group did he ever raise the possibility of an alert and/or lockdown? If not, why not? The fact is that there really was no solid evidence—only speculation—that Karl Thornhill was the killer. The lack of solid evidence against Thornhill should have made both a warning and a lockdown imperative. There were, after all, bloody footprints leading away from a double murder scene. This was strong evidence that the killer might still be on campus; certainly it was evidence that a killer was still at large.
8. On page 177, your own words seem to indict Chief Flinchum for not acting. You write, “At 8:13 Chief Flinchum requested additional officers from both VTPD and BPD to secure WAJ entrances and assist with the investigation. Due to the growing enormity of the event, and the need for multiple police to secure the perimeter, those officers that had gone off duty from the nightshift were recalled and assigned to Ambler-Johnston.” Your references the “growing enormity of the event” but never questions why Chief Flinchum did not urge a warning or a lockdown.
9. On page 181, Giduck writes, “One of the biggest mysteries about the massacre was just where the gunman was and what did he do during that two-hour (two and a half hour) window between the first burst of gun fire at a high-rise dormitory, and the second fusillade at a classroom building?’ In view of Giduck’s words about the enormity of the event and the furious action of the police—the biggest mystery is why Chief Flinchum did not take the initiative and urge a warning and lockdown. This mystery is further compounded by the fact that the police cancelled all trash collection on the campus at 9:05. It is a mystery to me how you can justify the police warning the trash collectors and not the faculty, staff, and students.
10. Sarcasm has no place in an analysis of the Virginia Tech tragedy. On page 196 you writes, “Nor can they (the police) be criticized for not being ‘seasoned’ enough to have clairvoyantly devised that Thornhill was innocent and that the GSR test would yield proof that he hadn’t fired a weapon within a four hour period.” Clairvoyance is not the question, competence is. If the police knew there was no love triangle (and they did early on), to concentrate so heavily on Thornhill at the expense of taking other actions, is faulty police work and unprofessional wishful thinking that had tragic consequences.
11. You addresse (on page 242) the lessons from the Morva incident. And I quote, “Also the Morva event taught the police that with that level of response they needed to immediately arrange for thousands of bottles of water to be brought in, along with food. Moreover, portable toilets were needed.” These are the lessons from the Morva event? These are the shining examples of what the police learned? Surely something more was learned. Perhaps that the university need a plan in place to provide these essentials in case of a long lock down.
12. On page 279, you point out that the New York Times contacted Professor Lucinda Roy the afternoon of the shooting and asked her to write and op-ed on how the tragedy affected the Virginia Tech community. You then writes “Yet how she, or anyone, could have been expected to articulate how the community was affected by a tragedy of such horrific proportions that no one yet knew the magnitude of, or it would affect the university in the future, is a mystery.” Ironically, the same can be said of much of your own work. For example, how could you or anyone know what was going on in Cho’s mind? Yet you, on page after page, present what Cho was thinking at various stages of his life and in the days leading up to the shooting.
13. You several times refers to “blamism,” and makes snide remarks about litigation. You imply that the police and first responders were afraid to talk. Yet on page 305, you writes, “The panel (Governor’s Review Panel) was not authorized to issue subpoenas, but with most of the police and other first responders virtually dying for a chance to be heard, to tell their story, to let someone in authority know what they had done and why, they would have shown up voluntarily. They would have shown up on their own time. Many would have taken vacation leave to explain to someone—anyone—what had really happened that day. No subpoenas would have been necessary, if only the governor’s appointees would have listened to them. Still several of the officers reminded us that the governor could have given the commission subpoena power if he had wanted. They said he didn’t because he didn’t want certain things to come out. ‘It was ass covering,’ we were told.” I would argue that if the police knew that a cover-up was taking place and said nothing, they were derelict in their duty not to speak out. If the police knew pertinent information about the worst school shooting in this nation’s history, and remained silent, how are they better than those who lied?
14. On page 329, you writes, “For the police to initially commit enormous resources in attempting to examine whether a victim was killed by a random murderer (extremely rare) or for-hire killer (even rarer), would be to waste both resources and time in determining a strong suspect and being able to contact that individual.” If you believe that, then he certainly has to believe that it was a waste of resources and time to pursue Karl Thornhill as a prime person of interest, once the idea of a love triangle between Emily Hirscher, Ryan Clark and Karl Thornhill was debunked. The continued heavy focus on Thornhill at the expense of searching another suspect—is indefensible. Furthermore, in view of the facts, you assertion on page 333 becomes ludicrous, “Thus, the prioritization of steps in the (police) investigation was without flaw.”
The above are just some of the many errors and inconsistencies in your book, Mr. Giduck. What a shame. The first responders do need to be honored, and their response to the shootings at Norris Hall may have been letter perfect. But to project that perfection backward onto police actions following the double homicide at Ambler West Johnston Hall is not only ludicrous; it is intellectually dishonest.