For Suzanne Grimes, whose son Kevin Sterne survived the shooting, there is no doubt; not only did Tech break the law in failing to warn, but it mounted a campaign to use the tragedy for monetary gain.
Suzanne, just as the Strollos, lived near Pittsburgh in April 2007. On the 16th she was out shopping for Kevin’s upcoming graduation. She wanted to do something special to honor her son’s accomplishment. Sometime around 11:30 a.m., her sister in New Mexico reached Suzanne by cell phone and asked if she had heard about the shooting at Virginia Tech. She had not, and immediately went home. She tried first to reach her husband and then her son, but no such luck.
There was no answer on Kevin’s cell phone, but she was not alarmed. Kevin’s phone bill is part of the family’s Verizon account, so Grimes printed the latest bill and began calling numbers identified with Kevin’s phone. She also kept calling Kevin’s number, but still no answer. One of the first numbers to answer was Kevin’s roommate Joe. He had not heard about the shooting, but tried to reassure Suzanne that Kevin was ok. But, Joe added, “Kevin is usually home for lunch by now, and he is not here.”
Suzanne persisted. The next number to answer was Kevin’s good friend Marcus. This time the tone was somber. Marcus said Kevin was in the building where the shootings had taken place and there was a good chance he had been shot. Suzanne tried to reassure a badly shaken Marcus that everything would be all right, but when she hung up the phone she started crying uncontrollably.
An emotionally distraught Suzanne finally got through to her husband who said he would be right home. They would leave for Blacksburg immediately. Suzanne did not stop to pack, she just kept calling and calling: first Kevin’s number and then the school or a number on the phone bill list, then Kevin. She kept the routine up. Suzanne finally reached someone who said she was on President Steger’s staff—possibly his secretary. She doesn’t remember the woman’s name, all she remembers are her words, “We don’t know what is going on.”
Now frantic, Suzanne called the Virginia Tech police asking about her son. They had no information and told her to call the state police, who in turn told her to phone the Blacksburg police. Around and around the phone calls went. She kept getting the same people, none of whom could tell her anything. Her emotions were now raw. Each time she reached the police she could hear the growing panic in their voices.
Suzanne had been working on a graduation poster for Kevin. The poster lay on the table near the phone and included pictures of Kevin as a child. Every time she looked over at her unfinished work she broke down sobbing.
All of a sudden her fright exploded. Suppose Kevin is hiding from the killer, his phone is on and her phone calls alert the killer to her son’s hiding place? Suppose the killer finds Kevin because of what she is doing and kills him? The fright was crippling; the emotional pain was excruciating.
From that point on she concentrated on phoning the police. At one point she was told she should call the morgue. She did, but again, no word—no answers.
By 1:30 p.m. the Grimes were speeding toward Blacksburg. Suzanne was beside herself; she was on the phone one call after another. She just kept dialing one number after another, hoping against hope she would hear Kevin was not hurt or worse yet, dead.
Sometime around 4:30 p.m. she got through to the Montgomery Regional Hospital. The hospital spokesperson said they had a survivor named Kevin, but could not say whether it was her son. At that point Suzanne reached one of Kevin’s friends who had gone to the hospital. The friend could not tell the Grimes anything specific, but said if you have a picture of him on your phone, send it to me and I will give it to the hospital officials. Suzanne found a picture, and sent it. The photo was taken into the operating room, and moments later Suzanne was told the survivor was her son. Suzanne remembers, “We were afraid to believe it was him, we were still skeptical. There are no words to describe the relief.” By now Suzanne was an emotional wreck; she was physically and emotionally exhausted. She was told that as soon as Kevin was awake they would have him call.
Grimes found out that her son had been the last survivor to be removed from Norris Hall. It had taken 51 minutes to get him to Montgomery Regional Hospital. She would also come to know that Kevin used skills he had learned in the Boy Scouts to stem the hemorrhaging in his leg and save his life.
There are no words in the English language to describe her feelings when she heard her son’s voice. When Kevin called, Suzanne could tell he was on heavy medication; she would later find out it was morphine. His voice sounded so good, it sounded so sweet even though the painkillers had taken their toll. When the hospital doctor called his first words were, “I have saved his life, I am not sure I can save his leg.” Kevin, just as Hilary Strollo, had lost over two-thirds of his blood. Fortunately, the doctor did save Kevin’s leg and through the young man’s grit and determination, he walked across the stage to get his graduation diploma that spring. Kevin’s action was the true embodiment of the Hokie spirit.
For the Grimes, once in Blacksburg, it did not take long for them to realize something was amiss with the school. It was readily apparent to them—the school had something to hide. The first few days passed in something of a daze, but they quickly came to realize they were not being told the whole truth. They were plagued with questions about why the school failed to issue a timely warning. But no one could or would explain the school’s actions and inactions on that fateful day.
The Grimes family managed to get the last available room at the Inn at Virginia Tech. Suzanne remembers the atmosphere as chaotic, bordering on mass hysteria. There were security checks everywhere. The Grimes were put at the end of the hall on the fourth floor—the floor where all the families of the dead were staying. Walking through that corridor was a terrible journey through unending grief and agony. Again Suzanne asked herself, why didn’t the school warn there was a killer on the loose?
Again Grimes asked herself, why were these families being put though this excruciating pain when a warning would almost certainly have saved 30 lives and prevented 17 from being wounded? Why have all of us had to suffer this, when it could have been avoided?
At one point Suzanne bumped into Dr. Ralph Diner (I will discuss, in future posts, the role Dr. Diner appears to have actually played), the grief counselor hired by Firestorm the crisis management company used by Virginia Tech for ten days following the shootings. The two exchanged a few words and she only remembers Diner saying, “Tech has some issues.”
Suzanne took a few phone calls, including one from the press. She was asked to fax a picture of her son for use in a newspaper article. No sooner did she comply with the request than she began thinking it was the wrong thing to do—suppose someone wanted to come back and kill Kevin.
Suzanne Grimes was entering a long period of fear and anxiety. For months and years she would be haunted by the thought that someone would still come and kill her son. As long as she stayed in Blacksburg, she felt relatively safe, because of the police and security presence. But once she returned to Pittsburgh, all the horror, shock, and fear came back with a vengeance. Back at home she locked all the doors and pulled all the shades. Her anxiety was so great that she had to go on medication. Again, she asked, “How could Tech not have warned there was a killer on the loose, how could they be so naïve to think that someone who had killed twice would not do it again?”
By July of 2007, Suzanne was beginning to make some progress toward regaining a degree of normalcy. It was at that time the Grimes received a phone call from the FBI office in Pittsburgh wanting to meet and talk with Kevin. The FBI agents wanted to hear, first hand, the account of the shootings. Kevin agreed and his mother accompanied him to the Bureau’s office. As she listened to her son recount graphic detail after detail of Cho’s methodical slaughter she felt she was going into shock. Kevin’s words brought back anew the horror of what her son had gone through and survived. Her nightmares returned. The stress of what she had heard from her son’s lips was so great that she had to remain on medication.
Suzanne Grimes would later find out that Tech President Charles Steger visited her son’s hospital room, but only after his parents had left. For Suzanne, Steger’s action was infuriating; it was the act of a coward. She could only say to herself, “How dare that man come into my son’s hospital room when his parents were not there?”
In the weeks and months that followed, Grimes more and more believed the families were being manipulated. The school did assign a liaison officer to the family, but Grimes shared a feeling felt by many of the families—the main purpose of this liaison officer was to string the families along, to tell them as little as possible, and to try to prevent the families from talking to each other and to the press. This feeling was reinforced by the fact that the school, through the liaison officer, was often unresponsive to the Grimes’ simplest requests and rarely answered questions.
Grimes also had the impression that Kenneth Feinberg, the noted U.S. attorney who handled, pro bono, the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund (HSMF), was a central player in making sure the families were controlled. (I will examine the machinations surrounding the HSMF in future posts) Suzanne Grimes vividly remembers a meeting in August 2007 with Feinberg concerning the HSMF. Time and time again during the meeting, she asked Feinberg pointed questions about how the money was being. She found his answers vague and evasive.
Grimes also clearly remembers the way Feinberg had the families exit that meeting to keep them away from the press—he apparently wanted to be in complete control of the message concerning the millions of dollars that were flooding into the school. Feinberg was a key player in the distribution of the HSMF money and for some reason he could not, or would not, fully answer Suzanne Grimes’s questions.
For the Pohle, Strollo, White, and Grimes families, there is no doubt, Virginia Tech not only violated the Clery Act, but the Steger administration violated common sense and good judgment. But don’t take my word for it. You, the reader, need to examine the legal aspects of the case against the school on the following pages and decide for yourself. (To be continued)