From the outset, people told us we needed to get an lawyer. Even the Commonwealth’s Attorney suggested we get one. During the months following the shooting, as more and more of the facts began to emerge about Peter Odighizuwa, his violent behavior, the school’s inaction, and the failure to get help for Angie, the more we realized we needed to get an attorney. If we had any doubts about our need to get legal counsel, those doubts were removed by two things. First, the terrible meeting in the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office on the first anniversary; second, the transcripts of the hearings held to determine Peter Odighizuwa’s competency and ground rules for a capital murder trial.
We had shown the transcripts of the court hearings to a lawyer and he said the prosecution’s performance—as indicated by the documents—was among the worst he had ever seen. The transcripts indicated one of two things: Either the Commonwealth’s Attorney was in over her head and did not know how to prepare witnesses, or it was clear the prosecution was not going for the death penalty. As it turned out, a deal to avoid a trial was her goal despite her repeated assurances to the Dales that she would seek the death penalty.
We had to try to get to the bottom of the problem; we needed answers if we were ever to come to closure.
I began sounding out friends in the legal profession. Off the record they said the evidence against the school was damning. Many just shook their heads in disbelief. But, they added, our chances of winning against a law school were next to zero.
Nevertheless, now more than ever before, I was convinced we needed legal advice. I was sure that we had a case for premises liability or negligence. I knew that we were not being told the truth. I also knew that finding an attorney to represent my granddaughter, Rebecca, would not be easy.
For me, it was straightforward—Peter Odighizuwa had a history of violence; he was violent in both his personal and school life; the school knew of his violent behavior and ignored it; Angie bled to death because she didn’t get medical assistance; what more do you need? I was soon to find out that in Virginia, apparently a great deal more.
Fighting a law school would not be simple, particularly in a conservative state that preferred to emphasize the rights of corporations and businesses ahead of the rights of individuals. But, it was so clear, so very, very clear to me. The school had been negligent and ignored all the signs of Odighizuwa’s violent tendencies and acts. How can the facts be ignored?
The Bigger the Law Firm, the Better
In the spring of 2002, I had begun to make inquiries about possible legal action. My thought was to get a high-profile, respected attorney to handle the case. If we had an uphill struggle—the bigger the law firm, the better. A check with local attorneys turned up several names of Norfolk and Richmond-based lawyers.
A local attorney highly recommended an attorney at one of Virginia’s “finest law firms,” a Richmond-based firm. He was a highly influential Virginian—a prominent member of the Republican Party who was and is plugged into all the right circles in Richmond.
A call to Richmond produced an immediate response. The attorney was not only anxious to take the case, but went on at great length about his credentials and why he was the right man for us. He was, he explained, not a personal injury lawyer—but, he argued, that would work to our advantage.
Indeed, after the initial call, he was back on the phone to us within 10 minutes, reiterating why he and his firm were the right ones to take the case.
I subsequently met with him near his summer home on Virginia’s Northern Neck—not too far from our house. Again he put his best foot forward; he put on a full court press. He pulled out all the stops, saying he has a daughter, and he would be crushed if this had happened to him.
What I was hearing was too good to be true. All the warnings we had had about trying to sue a law school were simply not true—I thought. I could hardly contain my enthusiasm telling my wife there was a chance!
We Would Get Our Day In Court
I called the Dales with the good news and made arrangements for them to come to Richmond so we could meet with the attorney. But what happened with the “prominent” attorney next was the one of the most bizarre incidents of the whole process, throughout our journey to find out the truth.
The meeting was set for mid-April 2003. The Dales, including Angie’s brother Joe drove up from Grundy the night before and stayed at the downtown Hyatt. We met them there the morning of the meeting and joined them for breakfast.
From the hotel it was a five-minute walk to the downtown skyscraper where the attorney’s offices were located. There was an armed guard behind the reception desk in the highly polished lobby. We asked him for the law firm’s floor and room number. He told us they had a large suite of offices one of the top floors and pointed us to the correct bank of elevators.
The law firm’s reception area was comfortable, tastefully decorated in earth tones, and the soft lighting made for a welcoming environment. I checked in with the receptionist, but she had no record of our appointment. Somewhat flustered, she said she was sure it was a simple mistake and paged the attorney. He did not answer and no one seemed to know where he was. I overheard someone question whether or not he was still in the building. The receptionist said she had seen him that morning and they would track him down.
The attorney’s secretary finally tracked him down and ushered us into a large mahogany conference room. I had a sinking feeling, but just kept telling myself this was an honest mistake.
When the attorney appeared he got right down to business after the required introductory pleasantries. “I cannot represent you,” he said. “I cannot represent you because Dr. Briggs (the same Dr. Briggs who treated Peter Odighizuwa) was a consultant in a previous case involving my law firm.”
I felt as if someone had hit me in the chest with a sledge hammer. I reminded him that we had specifically discussed that point in our meeting on the Northern Neck and at that time, he said the Dr. Briggs angle would not prevent him or his firm from engaging in a law suit against the school.
“I misspoke,” he said. He then tried to throw cold water on our case by saying he would not try to sue the school. I was upset. I don’t remember his exact words, but his words and his body language indicated he didn’t think we had much of a case. What happened to all the hard sell; what happened to all the pleadings that he and his firm were just what we needed?
I could not believe my ears! What happened to the man who called my home practically pleading for us to give him the case.
Angie’s brother Joe was visibly agitated. His face red, his vice trembling, Joe pointedly asked, “If this were your daughter would you be attempting to sue?”
“No,” came the response.
I thought Joe Dales was going to come across the table and punch him.
All I could think of was who has gotten to you? You son-of-a ……. Someone has gotten to you!
We left the offices of this attorney—“one of the finest in Virginia”—in disbelief and in stunned silence.
All I could do was turn to Danny and say, “I am so sorry, so very sorry to have put you through this. I don’t know what to say, I thought I had it all worked out?” I was still trying to come to terms with what I had heard.
As we entered the reception area, Janice was playing checkers with Rebecca. She could tell something was very wrong by the expressions on our faces. “What happened, what’s the matter?” she asked. All I could say is, “You won’t believe it.” I just shook my head. I felt like crying, I felt I had raised the Dales’ hopes needlessly. It was as if my credibility had been raped. (To be continued)