“Whenever there is news of a terrible shooting, I wonder why America has so miserably failed to enact even common-sense gun legislation.”~Jon Meacham, Pulitzer-prize winning author, executive vice president at Random House
It was 8:45 a.m. on April 16, 2007, nearly all of Virginia Tech went about business as usual. The police at West Ambler Johnston Hall had identified Karl Thornhill, Emily Hilscher’s boyfriend, as a person of interest and they were focused on him. The Police Chief had characterized the double homicide as a case of domestic violence, even though he had never conducted a murder investigation before. The university’s Policy Group, the only senior leadership body, with the capacity to issue an electronic warning to the campus, did not actually have the responsibility to do so, according to three different emergency procedures that were in effect. However, they had been in session since 8:25 a.m., knew that at least one student was dead and another was critically wounded. At 8:45 a.m., they were just beginning to compose a notice to the university community about the dormitory shootings. At this point, one hour and 35 minutes had passed since Emily Hilscher and Ryan Clark had been gunned down and the vast majority of the campus remained uninformed of the events that morning.
The few who did know about the shooting were taking precautions. Sometime around 8:00 a.m., Virginia Tech’s Center for Professional and Continuing Education locked down its doors.
President Steger and the university administration have gone on record saying that there was no way to predict that the double homicide that morning was going to lead to further violence. That argument might be believable, if we accept that assuming the murder was “domestic” or “targeted” was reasonable, and that being “domestic” made further violence less likely than in any other murder. But that is simply not true. According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, between 1996 and 2009, 771 law enforcement officers were murdered in the line of duty. Of that figure, 106 were killed responding to domestic violence calls. To say that a murderer is less violent when the motive is a domestic dispute, rather than criminal activity is simply false. Murderers are murderers. Once they have killed there is absolutely no reason to believe they are less violent.
Indeed, on April 16, 2007, before the morning was over, Cho would act out a script he wrote in Professor Ed Falco’s playwriting class the previous fall. In that script, a young man who hates the students at his school plans to kill them and himself. Falco was so upset with what he read that he brought Cho’s script to the attention of two English Department colleagues, Professor Lucinda Roy and Lisa Norris. Both told Falco of their concerns about Cho and the fact that they had alerted Associate Dean Mary Ann Lewis to Cho and his writings. Who can accept the assertion that Cho’s rampage was unpredictable, particularly when he had already describe his plans in writing?
Collective Ignorance and Communication Delays
In the eleven years preceding the spring of 2007, there had been 39 school shootings in this country. With all the inquiries and investigations following those shootings, it is hard to believe that Virginia Tech was so oblivious to the familiar warning signs. Furthermore, the shooting at the Appalachian School of Law, on January 16, 2002 was a scant 130 miles away. The parallels—including the warnings and the killers’ profiles— between those two shootings are alarming. It is evident that the administration of Virginia Tech learned nothing from these tragedies.
On April 16, 2007, first-period classes were coming to an end at 8:50 a.m., just five minutes after Ralph Byers, Virginia Tech’s Director of Public Relations and Virginia Tech Policy Group member, sent an email to a colleague in Richmond (for transmittal to the Governor) that one student was dead and another seriously wounded. According to The Governor’s Review Panel Report—The Addendum, Byers wrote, “Gunman on the loose,” adding, “this is not releasable yet.” Four minutes later, The Addendum quotes Byers reminding a Richmond colleague, “just try to make sure it (news of the shooting) doesn’t get out.” And indeed it had not gotten out, and it would not get out for another half hour. At that time, only those in the administration’s inner circle knew that there was the possibility of a gunman on campus.
Cho had returned to his room in Harper Hall and no one noticed his blood-spattered clothes. The campus at large had no information about the shooting at West Ambler Johnston Hall and no reason to be looking for a murderer on campus. Cho changed his clothes and prepared to mail a rambling diatribe to NBC News in New York.
Sometime around 8:50 a.m., the Associate Vice President for University Relations, Larry Hincker, allegedly tried to send a message through the alert system but couldn’t due to technical difficulties. Earlier, Hincker had prepared a draft message with specific details of what had happened, which the Policy Group reviewed and vetoed before 8:50 a.m.
At 8:50 a.m., as the Policy Group sluggishly worked on a notice, the Blacksburg public schools locked down. Approximately two minute later, at 8:52 a.m. (according to trial testimony), Ralph Byers—Tech PR Director and a Policy Group member—ordered that the doors to his office be locked. His office is adjacent to school President Steger’s office suite where doors remained unlocked.
As the Policy Group met and deliberated in the Burruss Hall boardroom, the Virginia Tech Veterinary College locked its doors. The Virginia Tech trash collection and bank deposits were cancelled just about the time that second-period classes began on the campus—including Norris Hall—and still there was no hint among the general faculty and student body of anything wrong, still no warning. There is no evidence of what the Policy Group was talking about, but clearly by 8:50 a.m. at least one message had been drafted—and vetoed. No adequate explanation has been given as to why it was not sent out.
Back in his room, Cho cancelled his computer account and made final preparations for his mass murder.
At 9:01 a.m., four minutes before the start of the second period, Cho went to the Blacksburg post office and mailed a package to New York. There is no mention in the Governor’s Review Panel Report as to whether he had his weapons with him. The report does say however, that a professor recognized Cho and described him as looking “frightened.” The package contained pictures of Cho with weapons as well as a rambling 1,800-word diatribe expressing rage, resentment and a desire to get even with unnamed oppressors.
At 9:05 a.m., second-period classes began at Virginia Tech, and the Policy Group continued to hesitate on the substance of the message.
For Colin Goddard, April 16, 2007, was something of an unusual morning. He moved about slowly, spending time getting organized for the day and texting fellow student Kristina Anderson, who was in his French class. He had made arrangements to take her to class, but was running late when he picked Kristina up and by the time they got to Norris Hall, the class had started. They debated whether to skip class, but finally decided to go in. It was now about 9:08 a.m.
Sometime between 9:15 and 9:30 a.m., Cho walked unobserved to Norris Hall, a gray stone engineering building in the middle of campus. It stands next to Burruss Hall, where President Steger and much of the school’s senior administration have offices. Cho was carrying two handguns; almost 400 rounds of ammunition most of it in rapid-loading magazines; a knife; heavy chains; padlocks; and a hammer. Silently and without notice, from inside Norris Hall, he chained shut some of the doors many of the students used to enter and exit the building.
Shortly after the doors were chained, a faculty member found a bomb threat attached to an interior door. She gave the note to a janitor, asking him to take it to the office of the dean of the Engineering School on the third floor. According to the Governor’s Review Panel Report, this was contrary to university instructions, which specify that all bomb threats be reported immediately to the police. The standard practice at Virginia Tech, when there is a bomb threat, is to send officers to the threatened building and immediately evacuate it. Had the bomb threat been reported immediately, the campus police would probably have arrived at Norris Hall sooner. Someone in the dean’s office was just preparing to call the police when the shooting started.
Other students saw the doors chained closed but did nothing. One young woman left the building for a brief time and when she returned was unable to enter. The door was chained from the inside and she thought it had been locked for some reason associated with the construction nearby. She climbed through a window to get to her first-floor destination— apparently without telling anyone what she saw.
Around 9:20 a.m., Virginia Tech Police Department Captain Joe Alberts arrived at the Policy Group meeting in Burruss Hall to act as law enforcement liaison, per order of Chief Wendell Finchum. He updated the attendees on the situation, telling them that a gunman was at large and possibly on foot.
Finally, after deliberating for an hour, at 9:26 a.m., and only two minutes after the police had stopped Karl Thornhill on Prices Fork Road at the entrance to the campus, the Virginia Tech administration sent an email to the campus staff, faculty, and students informing them of a dormitory shooting “incident.” As noted earlier, the message contained no specifics, no one was made aware that one student had been killed and another seriously wounded, and there was no hint that a killer might have been roaming the campus. A subsequent press release, and all initial timelines, state that all students [were] notified of homicide. That is simply not true. Four minutes later, at 9:30 a.m., the Governor’s Review Panel Report writes that Captain Alberts told the Policy Group that Emily Hirscher’s boyfriend, Karl Thornhill, was probably not the killer.
At Norris Hall, sometime around 9:30 a.m., Colin Goddard remembered a strange and disturbing thought after Rachael Hill, one of the best students in the class, came in and sat down in the front row. He wondered why she had come in when the class was nearly half over. She told the students seated near her that there had been a shooting in her dorm and the building was locked down, but she and another student, Henry Lee, had argued they had to go to class and were finally allowed to leave the dorm. Colin remembers thinking, “Wow, a shooting on campus and we know nothing about it.”
At 9:40 a.m., fourteen minutes after the email about the dormitory shooting went out, Cho began his eleven-minute bloodbath at Norris Hall. (To be continued)