The immediate goal of the investigating officer when he or she arrives on the scene is to gain, as much as possible, a clear understanding of what has happened. Common sense mingles with keen observational skills. Theories about what happened are fine—that is part of the initial investigative process. But investigating officers should never zero in on a theory or theoretical suspect to the exclusion of all else, particularly when there is little evidence to go on.
If the crime is violent, one of the critical questions is, “Is there a blood trail leading away from the victim(s)?” If there is, that trail tells an investigator that the perpetrator is on the loose. The blood trail also dictates that the investigating officer(s) do everything possible to warn and alert that a murderer is at large. This is simply common sense meeting harsh reality. Indeed, notifying the campus community when a dangerous criminal is loose is part of most universities’ emergency plans, including Virginia Tech’s.
I have to reluctantly conclude that the failure of the Virginia Tech police and other law enforcement officials to follow this elementary first step in crime scene analysis doomed thirty people at Norris Hall. Indeed, in reviewing media accounts of the morning of April 16th and the court room testimony concerning that same time frame, it is clear that law enforcement personnel involved in investigating the crime scene violated a basic principle in crime scene analysis, which is that investigating officers need to make decisions that will help prevent follow-on violence and crimes related to the one being investigated. But you, the readers, can judge for yourselves.
Let’s look at the events of the morning of April 16, 2007 and what the police found and did.
Somewhere between 7:05 a.m. and 7:12 a.m. a then unknown gunman shot a black male and a white female in room 4040 of West Ambler Johnston Hall on the Virginia Tech campus. A call was made to the campus police saying someone had heard a noise and that a female may have fallen out of bed. The rescue squad was sent to the dormitory, arriving sometime between 7:21 a.m. and 7:24 a.m.
When the Virginia Tech police arrived at room 4040 on the fourth floor of West Ambler Johnston Hall, there were two bodies on the floor—one dead and one severely wounded. A black male was lying up against the room door. He had been shot in the face and bled profusely before dying. The other was a young white female barely alive with a wound to the top and back of her head. She had been shot at a downward angle and the bullet had exited her jaw. The police found two spent 9 mm shell casing indicating the weapon was a semi-automatic pistol, but there was no pistol. The absence of the murder weapon eliminated the possibility of a murder suicide.
There were thirteen bloody footprints leading away from the murder scene, apparently made from a size 10 sneaker. The footprints headed down the hall and stopped at the door of a stairwell—one of 12 entry/exit points in the building. There was a bloody thumbprint on the stairwell door handle. The stairwell leads to the ground floor and to a door exiting the building. All indications were that the killer was on the loose, was possibly still on the campus, and that the killer was almost certainly armed and dangerous. At that moment (sometime around 7:30 a.m.), a warning was justified and called for.
No warning went out.
Virginia Tech Police Chief Wendell Flinchum was notified of the murder and wounding around 7:40 a.m. and immediately tried to reach the office of the school’s Executive Vice President. Court records indicate that at 7:51 a.m. he contacted the Blacksburg Police Department and requested “technical assistance.” A few minutes later, at 7:57 a.m., he got through to the Executive Vice President’s office and notified them of the shooting. At approximately 8:00 a.m. Chief Flinchum arrived on the scene.
At this point, the investigation of the crime was fully and squarely in the hands of Virginia Tech Chief of Police Wendell Flinchum. He was running the show and making all the decisions. Flinchum had an excellent reputation and was well thought of in the law enforcement community in southwestern Virginia. His background included ten weeks of training at the Basic Police Academy and in 2005, and he had been nominated for and was sent to the FBI for training that included 44 hours of homicide instruction. His nomination for this training at Quantico was, to use his own words, a special “honor.”
By this point it was nearly an hour since the shootings occurred and according to court documents, no one was looking for a shooter on campus. No one had issued a be-on-the-lookout for the killer, especially one with bloody clothes and shoes.
One of Flinchum’s first actions was to assign the homicide to a young detective with no prior homicide training and no homicide schooling of any kind. The detective however, did follow good police procedure and began to interview people on the fourth floor. She learned that a number of them had heard screams and loud bangs, but there were no eyewitnesses.
Chief Flinchum later testified on the witness stand that he never raised the subject of a campus lockdown with school president Charles Steger. In fact, he even went so far as to say that if he considered issuing a warning that morning, he doesn’t recall it. The chief also testified that he had the authority to issue a warning per published university procedure, but did not because the police did not have the technical means to do so and the evidence suggested the shooter posed no threat to the wider campus.
What evidence gave that suggestion? The two bodies—one dead and one dying? The gunshot wounds? Or perhaps it was the bloody footprints leading out of the building? In the first hour or two following the double homicide there was a dearth of evidence. About the only intelligent thing you could say was the killer was out there somewhere, might be on campus, and was armed and dangerous.
We know at this point that President Steger and Chief Flinchum were in contact though we have no way of knowing what was said. However, notes taken by Kim O’Rourke and Lisa Wilkes at the Policy Group meeting convened to discuss the shootings, state the police (read Flinchum) indicated there was no need to rush to warn or to lockdown the campus. (Two families whose daughters were killed at Tech, the Petersons and the Prydes, refused to settle with the state and sued Virginia Tech. I will discuss the discrepancies between Chief Flinchum’s statements on the stand later. Chief Flinchum claims that the idea of warning was not considered in his communications with the Policy Group, but President Steger testified at the Pryde and Peterson trial that Flinchum indicated there was no need to rush to warn the campus. No one has explained this inconsistency and no one has ever adequately explained why or how Flinchum felt there was no need to rush to warn or lockdown.)
While all of this was going on, the young man and the young woman in room 4040 were yet to be identified by the police. There were pictures of Emily Hilscher and Heather Haugh, with their names, on the door of dormitory room 4040. The wounded female student was almost certainly one of those young women. It is not unreasonable to think that the medics who worked on Emily would have been able to quickly recognize her features from the photo on the door. For that matter, the university had records of who lived in that dorm room and neighbors could also have provided names. Emily remained, for the moment, unnamed.
Ryan Clark, who was a Resident Advisor (RA) for the dorm, lived in room 4042, next to the crime scene. His name was on the door. The door to that room was open and pair of trousers had been thrown on the bed. The young man in 4040 was found in his undershorts. The police had still not made an official identification at the one-hour mark.
Unofficially, however, the cleaning staff had already identified the male victim. We know that because Ed Spencer, the Associate Vice President for Student Affairs, knew Clark and knew that he was gay. Soon after the shootings Spencer had been informed by a member of the cleaning staff that the “RA had been murdered” in West Ambler Johnston Hall. To quote from the Petition for Rehearing, Record No. 121717, “Ed Spencer, Associate Vice President for Student Affairs, arrived on the scene [Norris Hall] shortly before 8:00 a.m. He informed police that the RA ‘was active in the gay community,’ thus negating the sexual-liaison theory.”
Even if no one had told Spencer, it would have taken him a very short time to realize that the murdered male was Ryan Clark. Because Spencer knew Clark, he should have reported instantly who the murdered black male was. It seems logical that Spencer could have provided assistance in identifying the female victim as well, or at least with contact information for the two females listed as living in that room. As far as the records show, none of that happened.
It is odd that the cleaning staff identified Ryan Clark within 30 minutes of the shooting, but the police did not. The failure of the police to at least give a tentative identification of the victims is puzzling. It is also puzzling that police decided the double homicide was a domestic incident—a love triangle. As already noted, Ryan Clark was gay. Spencer knew that and even if he had not, one question by the investigating officers to any student on the fourth floor of West Ambler Johnston Hall would have put the domestic incident theory to rest. (To be continued)