In my research on the Virginia Tech shooting I asked families of the victims at what point did you know you were not being told the truth. Here is the response from Michael Pohle:
“One of the questions posed to me during the early idea stages of this book was whether there was a critical moment, or event, that crystallized in my mind that we were not being told the truth about how our son was killed. From the beginning of the formal investigation of the killings, which began almost immediately following the shootings, a number of the families believed strongly that we should have had representation on the special panel appointed by then Governor Tim Kaine to ensure no stone would be unturned. Not only did he reject our requests, we were not allowed to see, nor evaluate, the inventory of information available to the panel, their legal and investigative support resources, or law enforcement. Simply put, given that Virginia Tech is a state institution we faced a situation of the state investigating itself and the families were left on the outside.
“On August 30, 2007, then-Governor Kaine held a press conference where he publicly released the formal report of findings of the panel that had investigated the events of Virginia Tech. This report contained hundreds of pages of information and my family, and others, spent many days going through it to learn all we could. It was our bible, and the ‘facts’ contained in that document remained unchanged for the next 14 months, until October of 2008.
“Prior to October of 2008, and not long after my son, Mike Jr., had been killed, my family, as well as other families, retained counsel to preserve our legal rights. In our case, we were one of 20 families represented by the same firm. Among the numerous meetings held between our attorneys and the state that began in the fall, there is one of particular significance. It involved a meeting that was held in February 2008, one month before details of a proposed settlement agreement were presented to the families. The purpose of the meeting was for Virginia Tech Police Chief Wendell Flinchum to present details of the Virginia Tech shootings to the attorneys representing the families.
“Following that meeting, our attorney sent an email that described what had transpired, and his thoughts. In the message, our attorney began by stating that attendees were required to sign a confidentiality agreement, but, they were free to share information with their clients. The rest of the email went on to describe our attorney’s input from the meeting, in which he stated he learned “nothing earth shattering” and made no mention about potential errors, missing information, or issues with what had been published in the Governor’s Review Panel Report. Less than one month later, the families were presented with a settlement offer that our attorneys strongly urged the families to approve. What is relevant is the fact that a settlement was ultimately signed between the state of Virginia and all but two of the families in April of 2008, and approved by a judge two months later, in June.
“One of the conditions of that settlement was that the families would, for the first time, have face-to-face meetings with representatives from law enforcement directly involved in the shootings, members of the Virginia Tech administration, and two meetings with then Governor Timothy Kaine who sponsored the formal investigation of April 16th. These meetings were vital because they would provide a forum for families to ask questions of, and seek answers from, many of the key participants. These discussions were also significant for my family because we were becoming more suspicious after hearing that Virginia Tech was being investigated for potential Clery Act violations and that at least one, or two buildings had locked down after hearing of the shootings.
“The first of these family meetings was held on Saturday, October 16, 2008 with various members of law enforcement. The location was the Department of Transportation offices in Northern Virginia. I remember that when I pulled up to the parking lot entrance there was a Virginia State trooper who checked my identification before allowing me to park, and I could see that the other entrances were guarded as well. After parking, I went into the building and saw additional state police officers directing the families to one of the main conference rooms. The families, of which there were about 20, were seated in chairs around some tables.
“Larry Roberts, then Chief Counsel to Governor Kaine, facilitated the meeting. The presenter was Wendell Flinchum, Chief of the Virginia Tech Police Department. Other law enforcement personnel involved on the campus joined him that day. I also noticed that sitting in the back of the room was another gentleman taking notes. I did not recognize him. I only found out years later that he was actually Peter Messitt, Assistant Attorney General for the state of Virginia who was a defense lawyer at the jury trial in March 2012. After Roberts gave a few opening comments, the presentation opened with Chief Flinchum saying that he was going to discuss details concerning the shootings, which included information that he had presented to the Governor’s panel during their investigation in 2007. He proceeded through the series of events of the morning of April 16th, and when they occurred. Questions were raised by a number of families because we wanted to know as many details as we could. We anticipated that we would hear facts that were never documented in the original panel report, or disclosed at a later date. For example, what did the police find at the crime scene?
“We listened as Chief Flinchum described the scene of the initial shootings at the West Ambler Johnston dorm (a.k.a West AJ) and that when he arrived he learned that there was no weapon found, there was/were no suspect(s), there were no witnesses, and there were bloody footprints leaving the area. We were amazed because we simply could not understand how anyone could take that information and reach the conclusion that there was no longer any potential danger to the campus. The chief then provided additional details relative to the timing of events and actions being taken, which included interviewing people in search of leads.
“Experts will tell you that one of the most critical elements of any criminal investigation is an accurate timeline of events. That is the cornerstone from which further analyses and conclusions can be drawn when evaluating what was happening based on the crime scene specifics and other evidence. As far as the Virginia Tech tragedy is concerned, the timeline of events was particularly important because of the fact that there were actually two shootings, with a time delay of just over two hours between the first and second attacks. The accuracy of the timeline was central in determining what actions were being taken, or not, and the significance of those actions, especially because nothing was known about the shooter when police, and others, had arrived at the West AJ dormitory early that morning and began processing the crime scene.
“The families were well aware that the original panel report stated that law enforcement had begun their pursuit of a “person of interest” at 8:00 a.m. based on their interview of the female victim’s roommate, which the report erroneously asserted began at 7:30 am. This was the baseline that would connect other actions. It was during this phase of his presentation when the Chief made a statement that stunned us all. We almost missed it at first because Flinchum spoke in an almost monotone voice, without expression. As he was talking about the timeline he stated that the interview of the witness, Hilscher’s roommate (Heather Haugh) that had led police to the “person of interest” began at 8:16 am. My hand immediately went up because I knew that the official report specifically stated that interview had begun at 7:30 am. I asked the chief, “Are you saying the 7:30 a.m. time in the panel report is wrong?” His reply was a simple, “Yes.” We could not believe what we were hearing. That lie was allowed to remain uncorrected for 14 months after the original panel report was published. I then realized that given this new start time for the interview, it was not humanly possible to have identified, or begin searching for, any person of interest until long after 8:00 a.m. The fact that Chief Flinchum and other school officials knew of this critical error before the Review Panel Report was published makes them guilty of lies of omission.
“To appreciate the significance of this new information one has to understand the period between the first and second shootings. At around 7:15 a.m., the killer shot his first two victims in the West Ambler Johnston dormitory. By 7:30 a.m. Virginia Tech police and emergency personnel were at the scene. By 8:00 a.m. Chief Flinchum had been notified of the shootings, had been at the scene where the investigation was underway, and had communicated with the office of his superior to report what was happening. At 8:11a.m., the Chief spoke via cell phone to University President Charles Steger about the situation. At 8:25 a.m. President Steger and senior policy officials convened to discuss what to do. It was not until 9:26 a.m. that a message went out to the campus concerning a “shooting incident.” No specific details were provided in the message. At 9:40 a.m., the same person began methodically killing 30 additional people.
“What this also means was that between 7:30 a.m. and 8:25 a.m. all that was known about the situation was that there was no weapon found, there were no witnesses, there were bloody footprints leaving the scene, and no suspect or person of interest had been identified. Senior leaders of the Virginia Tech administration began their meeting faced with the reality of a gunman whose location, and intentions, were unknown. There were no campus wide warnings issued by the police, there were no campus wide alerts issued to students and faculty, there were no alarms turned on, there were no sirens. There were, however, students and staff soon to be making their way toward Norris Hall where classes would begin at 9:05 a.m. completely unaware of what was soon to happen to them. Thus it was not until 9:26 a.m. after another hour had passed, that the electronic alert message was issued by the administration; however, it was non-specific relative to what had had happened in the dormitory, rendering it ineffective. At 9:40 a.m., the killer began his second, much larger, rampage in Norris Hall where our son was gunned down.
“Immediately following the meeting, we shared what we had learned with reporters outside the building. The news of this serious error, this lie, was published in a major article by the Richmond Times Dispatch and picked up by the national media. In the article, retired Virginia State Police Superintendent Gerald Massengill, who led Governor Tim Kaine’s investigation of the massacre, was quoted as saying, “If they didn’t have a suspect or a person of interest for another 45 minutes or an hour, I think that would have put a different light on things.”
“During the long drive home to New Jersey following that meeting I began to ask myself why Virginia Tech officials had lied to the Governor’s panel and what else might be wrong. Between that meeting, and the family meeting the following month with President Steger and members of the school administration, my thinking took a more frightening turn. Was it possible that the investigating panel and their well-compensated investigative team, as well as others, actually had the correct information in their possession yet intentionally elected not to disclose it in their public report because of legal concerns and to protect the school? Was this a collaborative effort to keep the truth from the families? In the months that followed it became apparent that it was impossible that Col. Massengill and the investigative team did not know that the timeline of events they published in August of 2007 was wrong, yet not a single member of the panel, a single school official, not anyone from the Governor’s or Attorney General’s offices, or even our own attorney had done anything about the errors. Everyone waited until after a legal settlement had been reached to correct the critical error in the timeline.
“In addition to sharing what we had learned at the meeting with my wife, Teresa, I also shared it with my father. Although he never admitted it, Mike’s death devastated ‘Pop-pop’ as he was called. Dad spent his career in the military and had served during the Korean and Viet Nam wars and rarely showed emotion. When Mike was killed Dad had been living in New Jersey near our home. My mother had died a few years earlier. ‘Pop-pop’ was special to Mike, and they had a strong relationship. Unfortunately, Mike never got to meet his maternal grandfather, “T.W.,” who was a career member of the Marine Corps and had served in Viet Nam and the Middle East. This was because less than two weeks after Mike was born, in October of 1983, “T.W.” was killed in the suicide bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon.
“Following Mike’s death there was noticeable change in my father. He had always stressed to everyone to work hard, be strong, and move forward. He would constantly ask about what was going on and what information we had about Virginia Tech. He also would tell me we were being told the truth by officials and it was not healthy to suspect them. That was his military background speaking because he was used to the “chain of command” stating what the facts were, and that was it. That is not meant as a criticism, it was just the way he was. Once I shared the details of what had been learned with him following the meeting I had just attended, as well as the meeting with school officials held one month later, you could see that he realized the deception. From then on, it appeared that things didn’t matter to him much anymore; whenever we would be alone talking he would say he was glad he wouldn’t be around much longer because people just don’t care about responsibility, honor, and duty. In December of 2008, two months following the first family meeting after the settlement approval, Dad died peacefully in his sleep, still proud—but a hurt man.
“For me, my defining moment came in two parts. The first was when I learned I was being intentionally lied to by people sworn to be truthful. The second was when I saw the strongest man I had ever know simply lose his will to live as well as his faith in what he had believed about people and honor. That is also when I came to believe, as I do to this day, that the investigation of my son’s death at Virginia Tech in April 2007 incorporated lies and omitted key facts. These were not simple mistakes caused by time constraints imposed on the panel by the Governor, or the lack of experience and skill of those involved in researching and analyzing; they were intentional errors to hide the truth about one of the worst school mass killings in history. Based on what we have learned then and since, I believe that this was a carefully orchestrated plan of deception and silence to minimize the potential for legal actions against Virginia Tech and the state.” (To be continued)