Monday, March 6, 2017


As far as I have been able to ascertain, it took a little over an hour after the shootings took place to identify Ryan Clark, the RA in West Ambler Johnston Hall. But the timeline in the Governor’s Review Panel Report does not pin down the precise time of the identification.

You may be saying that this delay is not too bad. And, in and of itself, you are probably right. But coupled with the rest of what was going on at the crime scene, it is another indication of the lack of coordination and communication among those who were at West Ambler Johnston Hall. It would seem that despite the presence of an experienced police chief, Wendell Flinchum, there was little or no organization or systematic approach to investigating the crime scene.

A good crime scene investigator considers all possibilities and rules nothing out. Who might have committed the murder, was it a random act of violence, was it a robbery or drug deal gone bad? Nothing should be excluded and while a suspect may be identified in the interview process, no one suspect or person of interest should be singled out to the exclusion of others—particularly in the absence of strong evidence. So how did it happen that Chief Flinchum focused the investigation on Karl Thornhill, Emily Hilscher’s boyfriend, as the only person of interest?

Let’s take a closer look at this “person of interest.” Who decided that the West Ambler Johnston crime scene was a “domestic incident?” When was that decision made? How was the conclusion reached that murderers in a domestic crime should not be considered a threat to others?  The only evidence that Flinchum had to support his belief that this was a domestic incident appears to be that one of the victims was male and the other female—and, that they were clad only in their pajamas and underwear respectively. It does not appear that the trousers flung on the bed of the next-door room, left unoccupied and with the door hanging open, were taken into account.

A far more likely explanation of the crime scene was that what Ryan Clark had heard concerned him so much that he didn’t take time to put his pants on before going to investigate. He was probably the only person, and certainly the last, to hear Emily’s cry for help. He did the heroic thing—he went to her aid. But, the police, because the two were not fully dressed, put the tawdriest explanation on what they found—the two must have been having sex; the shootings must have been part of a love triangle. It apparently was beyond the investigating officers’ thinking that what they found could be anything else but some spin on a sex crime. The exact opposite appears to be the truth—Ryan Clark died a hero’s death.

Let’s look more closely at the question of issuing a warning and instituting a lockdown. Only the Virginia Tech police and the school’s Policy Group know what took place in the deliberations and conversations following the double homicide at West Ambler Johnston Hall. Only they know if a lockdown was suggested; only they know if and how vigorously a campus-wide warning was recommended—and by whom. And they are not talking.

A key concept in crime scene analysis is the “person of interest;” the identification and apprehension of such a person is key to any investigation, and especially important in a violent crime. First, a reasonable suspicion of who may have committed the crime—based on facts—must be determined. Then, if that person is still at large, investigators must determine whether that person is planning to engage in further criminal activity. Only once investigators have the evidence to substantiate their suspicion, should they identify that individual as a “person of interest.”

These principles were violated at Virginia Tech. The Virginia Tech police identified Karl Thornhill, Emily Hilscher’s boyfriend, as a “person of interest” and concentrated on him to the exclusion of all else. The “evidence” pointing to the boyfriend was a photo of Thornhill holding a rifle, not a pistol, at a firing range.

In fact, a large number of college-age males in southwestern Virginia own guns and many go to firing ranges or engage in target practice. On this basis alone, any number of young men in West Ambler Johnston Hall could have been designated a “person of interest.” There was no evidence in the room or from witnesses that Karl Thornhill had been there that morning, and no hints that the couple had been unhappy.

Compounding the error was the fact that the police and school proceeded as if they had found their killer. By zeroing in on Karl Thornhill, Chief Flinchum and all the police investigators violated one of the very basic tenants of crime analysis: they believed what they wanted to believe, they assumed someone was guilty with the flimsiest of evidence and apparently excluded other possible culprits in their investigation.

Flinchum and others may try to argue that it was reasonable to focus on Karl Thornhill. Reasonable suspicion, however, is determined from the totality of the circumstances and information known to the investigating officers. There was no totality of evidence pointing toward Thornhill. Reasonable suspicion is subject to neither wishful thinking nor is it subject to formulaic analysis in the absence of evidence. Crime scene investigators should never zero in on one suspect to the exclusion of others. This basic mistake by Flinchum, and others, would become a mutating monster at Norris Hall in less than two hours.

In examining the missteps of the investigating officers in the early hours of April 16, 2007, you have to look at the questioning of Emily Hilscher’s roommate Heather Haugh. If the police suspected that the murders were the result of a domestic dispute such as a love triangle, what better person to ask that than Haugh? Yet, there is no evidence such a question was asked.

Had anyone thought to follow up on the possibility of a love triangle with any of the dorm residents, rather than assuming it was true based on the location and genders of the bodies, investigators could have quickly found out that Ryan Clark had no interest in Emily Hirscher beyond her being a student he was assigned to help and watch over in his role as a RA. Hilscher had none in him, other than as a neighbor, RA, and possibly the person who answered what may have been her last cry for help.

As far as I can tell, no one asked Heather Haugh about the relationship between her roommate and her RA. Haugh returned to the dorm room at 8:14 a.m., an hour after the shooting, 45 minutes after Spencer had arrived, and only 14 minutes after Chief Flinchum. Shortly after that point in time the police had to know that Emily Hirscher was the wounded student (although the timeline of the Review Panel Report does not specifically state the time of Hilscher’s identification). It is not until the questioning of Haugh begins that the police identify Hilscher’s boyfriend, Karl Thornhill, as the person of interest and that takes place sometime around 8:30 a.m. A lookout for Karl Thornhill was issued between 8:30 a.m. and 8:40 a.m. However, although he was a “person of interest” and a student at Radford University, apparently Virginia Tech police did not notify the Radford University police of that fact for some time. This delay in asking for help to find Thornhill, “a person of interest” in a double homicide, is puzzling.

Strangely, President Steger would claim at a press conference on the evening of April 16th that Thornhill was a “person of interest” at 7:30 a.m. Only years later, and following a painful jury trial, did families find out for certain that such timing was impossible.

Still, it is clear that by 8:40 a.m. the university police had decided on a suspect and issued a be-on-the-look-out for him. It is also clear that the young man was not in custody, and the police did not know where he was. They had delayed in contacting Thornhill’s school, and so they could not confirm whether he was in class or at his dorm. What they did have was thirteen bloody footsteps leading away from a double murder scene, and someone with a gun, whether it was Thornhill or not, potentially loose on their campus.

Still no warning was issued. It was not until 9:26 am that the school issued a notification reading: “A shooting incident occurred at West Ambler Johnston Hall earlier this morning. Police are on the scene and are investigating.”

All references to a homicide and a possible active shooter were absent from the notice; there was no mention of the fact that the killer was armed, dangerous, and still at large.

The police said they locked-down one building on the morning of April 16, 2007, and that was West Ambler Johnston Hall. But even then, they got it wrong. Despite statements that the dormitory was “locked down” while the building was being searched, in fact it was not. Students still had access into and out of the building. Students such as Henry Lee and Rachael Hill were allowed to leave the building during that time period to go to their French class—where both would later be killed. The two arrived at class sometime between 9:15 a.m. and 9:30 a.m., just minutes before Cho. A particularly heart-wrenching aspect to this story is that Hill, while walking across campus, called her parents to tell them there had been a shooting in her dormitory, but she was OK.

Cho’s rampage began at 9:40 a.m.

The bottom line is that at the one place where the police instituted a lock- down, they didn’t get it right. If a true lock-down had been in place, Hill and Lee would be alive today. (To be continued)

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