As the dust settled and the horror of the Tech massacre began to sink in, there was widespread suspicion the school leadership was trying to figure out how to handle the negative publicity of a double homicide less than two weeks before the largest on-campus fundraiser in the school’s history—was that why there was no warning; was that why there was no lockdown? Surely the upcoming gala was known by these senior administrators who had most likely been involved in discussions during the planning for such an important event. This evidence is circumstantial, but is at least as good as the evidence that allowed police to target Karl Thornhill as the killer in a domestic dispute.
The school’s rush to concentrate on Karl Thornhill, to the exclusion of all other possible murderers, doomed students and faculty in Norris Hall—30 people killed and 17 wounded because of incompetence, poor crime scene investigation, and wishful thinking.
Some argue that it is unfair to criticize Flinchum, Steger, and others because hindsight is 20-20. But I believe it is fair to criticize them for lack of professionalism, poor leadership, and unsound judgments. Consider this, Chief Flinchum prior to April 16, 2007, was extolled by many as “one of the best” in his profession. If this is true, his poor decisions and lack of action when confronted with a murder scene are open to question and are valid areas of criticism.
Flinchum’s actions and inactions on that fateful morning are not only mystifying, but are certainly not commensurate with “one of the best” in his profession. Indeed, his actions on April 16, 2007 are something more akin to an amateurish response than the actions of a senior, professional police officer.
We need to skip forward for a moment until sometime around 6:00 p.m. on April 16, 2007. That is when school President Steger and Larry Hincker, Associate Vice President for University Relations, and possibly the school’s legal counsel, apparently mapped out a strategy for handling the press and fielding questions about the delay in issuing a campus-wide warning.
A press conference was scheduled for 7:40 p.m. that night so they needed a plan and they needed it quickly. The two apparently decided that Steger would read a prepared statement and then the floor would be turned over to Police Chief Flinchum. Flinchum had not been at the Policy Group meetings, the deliberative body that debated when and how to alert the campus, so he wasn’t privy to what the group had discussed that morning. Nevertheless, the chief would field the questions.
Prior to the press conference, at 7:05 p.m., an email detailing specific wording that President Steger would ultimately present at the press conference was prepared on the laptop of Virginia Tech’s head of University Relations, Larry Hincker. The email could then be forwarded to his computer for printing for release to the media. At a trial five years later, Hincker—under oath—denied that he had written the email on his laptop and had no idea who had composed it, yet it was sent from that laptop to himself, and was read almost verbatim by Steger 30 minutes later on television in front of reporters.
The prepared statement read by Steger included an erroneous timeline of events, along with other untruths. The incorrect timeline identified 7:30 a.m. as when a “person of interest” was identified, and police were already searching for him. But, as we have already shown, “the person of interest,” Karl Thornhill was not identified until the questioning of Heather Haugh over an hour later—sometime between 8:15 and 8:30 a.m. The school needed a 7:30 a.m. time in order to give them some degree of cover for the delay in notifying the campus.
I have serious doubts about the statements made by Hincker relative to his being so clueless about the source and author of what was about to be released to the national media by the school president. It is odd that apparently a phantom got access to Hincker’s laptop at 7:05 p.m., typed a timeline that lied about key aspects of the crime, sent it to Hincker, and then left before the real Hincker returned to his keyboard. Following that, the document mysteriously was printed for the president of the school to hand out to the press corps, presenting false information as fact, and getting these inaccuracies into the public record—yet still its origin is unknown. Granted, there was a great deal of confusion and angst that day, but by anybody’s standards the strange comings and goings regarding Hincker’s laptop stretch the limits of credibility.
Even if you accept the phantom timeline writer, it is hard to explain why Chief Flinchum, who knew there was no person of interest until after 8:30 a.m., remained silent at the time of the press conference and for a very prolonged period of time thereafter. In fact, he did more than just remain silent; at one point he apparently contradicted himself and verified the lie.
In March of 2012, during the trial where Virginia Tech, as agent of the state, was found guilty of negligence, the Roanoke Times reported that retired Virginia State Police Superintendent Gerald Massengill, chairman of the Virginia Tech Review Panel appointed by Governor Kaine, testified under oath that Flinchum and Blacksburg Police Chief Kim Crannis had both verified the erroneous timeline in a private meeting with Massengill held in June of 2007. The meeting attendees were purposely limited because had their numbers exceeded a certain level, then, by law, the meeting would have to have been open to the public.
What is even more egregious is that in May of 2007, just one month earlier, Flinchum had presented the timeline of events to the Virginia Tech Review Panel in a PowerPoint presentation which was published almost verbatim in the official report released by then-Governor Tim Kaine in August of 2007, which actually showed the correct start time of the interview. I say “almost verbatim” because even though Flinchum’s PowerPoint presentation of May, 2007 showed the critical interview of Heather Haugh actually began at 8:16 a.m., and led to the identification and search for a person of interest almost thirty minutes later, the false timeline entry surrounding that event remained in the official record.
True, over one year later Flinchum would finally lay out the correct timeline. However, that correction was only made after approval of a legal settlement offer was accepted by all but two of the families. Prior to the settlement, there was no mention of the false timeline, or other errors, by anyone from the school, former panel members, or the state. His silence on this critical point, particularly early on, is troubling because the incorrect timeline made it into the first official version of the Governor’s Review Panel’s report. The motivation for not correcting the timeline may have been a recognition that the correct timeline could have undercut and negatively impacted the tremendous pressure being placed on the families to settle with the state of Virginia.
Another complete falsehood contained in Steger’s comments dealt with whether the campus had been notified and warned of the homicide at West Ambler Johnston Hall. According to the school president, the answer was—of course. At the press conference, and in the press release, Steger stated that the school had been notified of a “homicide.” That simply is not true. “A shooting incident,” the exact words found in the first email sent to the campus at 9:26 a.m., is not a double homicide; “police are on the scene and are investigating,” in no way indicates that the murderer is unidentified and is still at large.
It is impossible to disguise or gloss over these errors in information and evidence gathering. The “love triangle” was allowed to stand, and then for reasons no one has explained, the police built on that theory, calling the double homicide “targeted” killings, making the murders and murderer seem less a threat to the campus at large. Where did Flinchum and the Virginia Police come up with that? The term “targeted” was apparently an afterthought as police kept looking for excuses. “Targeted” is not used in the timeline of events in the Governor’s Review Panel report and only gains prominence in testimony given at the trial in connection with lawsuits the Peterson and Pryde families filed against Virginia Tech. A murderer is a murderer. There is absolutely no way to measure the threat posed until the killer is in custody. There is no reason to ever say that a murderer is not a threat. But the school and law enforcement argued that because this was “domestic” or “targeted” there was no urgency to warn.
Let’s take a closer look at the words “targeted killings.” According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “targeted killings” refers to the killing of individuals whom the U.S. government deems to be an enemy. The ACLU says this about “targeted killings:” “The CIA and the military are carrying out an ‘illegal killing’ program in which people far from any battlefield are determined to be enemies of the state and are killed without charge or trial. The executive branch has, in fact, claimed the unchecked authority to put the names of citizens and others on ‘kill lists’ on the basis of secret determination, based on secret evidence that a person meets a secret definintion of the enemy.” Indeed, most authorities who have looked at “targeted killings” refer to it as an intentional killing, by a government or its agents of persons who are allegedly taking part in an armed conflict or terrorism, whether by bearing arms or otherwise, and who have allegedly lost the immunity from being targeted that they would otherwise have under the Third Geneva Convention.
I think what the Virginia Tech Police really meant when they used the term “targeted killings” was a completely different term and concept: “targeted violence.” “Targeted violence” is used by specialists who study violent crimes and is a completely different concept from “targeted killings.” “Targeted violence” has been used in discussing school safety, but from what I can determine, it does not apply to a love triangle on a campus, anywhere. Did Flinchum really mean “targeted violence?” The mixing of the terms “domestic incident,” “targeted violence,” and “targeted killings” gives credence to the fact that the label “targeted killings” was applied in a rush, without thought, and as part of an afterthought to provide an excuse for both the police’s and school’s inaction.
Another nagging question is why there was no campus lockdown.
One of the excuses repeated by school officials is that they did not call for a campus lockdown because they wanted to avoid a panic similar to the one that occurred in the late summer of 2006 when William Morva escaped from custody in Blacksburg and killed two people.
On August 20, 2006, Morva, while awaiting trial for armed robbery, was taken from the Blacksburg jail to the Montgomery Regional Hospital for treatment of a sprained ankle and wrist. After using the bathroom, Morva assaulted and knocked out deputy Russell Quesenberry with a metal toilet-paper holder. He then took the officer’s gun and killed Derrick McFarland, a hospital security guard.
The next morning, on August 21, 2006, Morva shot and killed Montgomery County sheriff’s deputy Eric Sutpin. In response, Virginia Tech canceled classes and closed the campus—a lockdown. In other words, the school locked down even though the victims were not students and there was no evidence the killer was on the campus. Later on the 21st, Morva was captured hiding in a briar patch 150 yards from where he killed Sutpin.
When asked why Virginia Tech did not follow its own example of eight months earlier, President Steger and others in the school administration said they did not want a repeat of the panic that occurred at that time. The only problem with that is in talking to people who were there at the time and reading the newspaper accounts, there was no panic anywhere on the Tech campus. (To be continued)