Appalachian School of Law, Columbine, Virginia Tech
Within hours of Cho’s slaughter I could see the disturbing similarities between the law school and Tech shootings. Within days those similarities became frightening parallels. I was so troubled that I wrote an article for our local newspaper:
The Rappahannock Record April 26, 2007
“Virginia Tech: Let the Cover-Up Begin”
The sad truth is that the terrible loss of life at Virginia Tech could have been prevented if state and school officials in Blacksburg would have learned the lessons from the shootings at the Appalachian School of Law on January 16, 2002. The parallels between the two tragedies are staggering.
Angela Dales, the mother of our granddaughter, was the student killed at the law school. In the five years since that tragedy we have repeatedly sought answers. But we have been met with disingenuous expressions of sympathy followed by outright refusal to answer our questions. The same will happen to the families of those lost at Virginia Tech.
Students, staff, and faculty warned law school officials that the murderer, Peter Odighizuwa, was a threat and they feared for their safety. The same is true at Virginia Tech—there were warnings about Seung Hui Cho.
Five years ago, no alarm was sounded on the second floor of the law school building after the initial shootings—an alarm that might have saved Angela Dales’ life and prevented the wounding of three other students. At Virginia Tech, over two hours lapsed between the first shootings and the second. And, no alarms were sounded!
Court documents indicate that several weeks before the law school shooting, female staff and faculty members—citing Odighizuwa— expressed concern for their safety. The President of the Appalachian School is said to have responded, “Oh you women and your hormones, nothing will happen.” The President of Virginia Tech knew of the first shooting and did nothing to immediately close or alert the campus. Both men should be fired.
Both Peter Odighizuwa and Seung Hui Cho had harassed fellow students and the schools knew about it.
Both Peter Odighizuwa and Seung Hui Cho had been referred to mental facilities or were seeking psychiatric care, and the schools knew about it.
The office of former Virginia Attorney General Jerry Kilgore refused to help us get access to the investigation report of a threatening e-mail Angela Dales received prior to the shooting. The same will happen to Virginia Tech families when they turn to state officials for help.
The Virginia Tech families will learn the bitter truth that in dealing with these tragedies, all elected officials want to do is plant a tree, put up a plaque, or adopt a bill commemorating the shooting. None of them, Republican or Democrat, have the will or backbone to really investigate the causes of the tragedy and propose laws, or enact regulations, that will begin to deal with the prevention of these atrocities.
Since the horrible events on April 16th the phrase, “Let the healing begin” has been repeated over and over again. What would be closer to reality is, “Let the cover up begin.”
The sad truth is that when put to the test, numerous elected officials and far too many members of the legal and law enforcement professions show that our beliefs and values mean little or nothing to them. Values such as honesty, courage, integrity—and justice— frequently disappear in a fog of deceit, treachery, and bureaucratic incompetence.
In our case, when the words of law enforcement as well as law school and elected officials took on a pejorative, even a disparaging tone—our pain deepened. When we turned to these individuals to find answers, to find “justice”—we found intellectual fraud and deceit. The same will likely happen to the families who lost loved ones at Virginia Tech.
What could be done to prevent another tragedy like the one at Virginia Tech? A great deal! First, the Virginia legislature should adopt a law stating that if a faculty or staff member identifies a student as mentally unbalanced and potentially violent, the student must be referred to mental health authorities for evaluation. At the same time an alert should be issued to all gun stores banning the sale of weapons and ammunition to that individual. Any person selling a gun to someone for whom a warning has been issued should serve a mandatory, long jail sentence.
Second—and by law—all educational facilities in Virginia, both public and private, should have in place a mandatory emergency plan. All students and faculty should be aware of the plan, and that plan should be periodically rehearsed as are fire drills.
Third, in the event of any shooting on school grounds, the school should immediately be closed. Police should be called and posted around the facility until it is clear that the shooter has been captured— not just a suspect as was the case at Virginia Tech.
At the time I wrote the article, I did not realize how accurate my words were, nor did I realize how they reflected the denials, deceptions, and lies that had taken place at Columbine. I was writing based on my personal experieces with the Appalachian School of Law and state officials. In fact, as I did research for this book, the parallels between the shootings at Columbine, the Appalachian School of Law, and Virginia Tech became glaringly apparent.
The first deceit that all three school shootings share is the assertion that no one saw the threat or had any hint that the killers were violent and possibly mentally unstable. Let’s look at some of the facts:
Columbine—According to David Cullen’s examination of that tragedy in his book Columbine, the police had very clear and specific evidence that Eric Harris was a threat and was planning violence. In his chapter entitled, “Telling Us Why,” he examines the repeated complaints made by Judy and Randy Brown that Harris had threatened their children’s safety. “Thirteen months before the massacre, Sheriff’s Investigators John Hicks and Mike Guerra had investigated one of the Brown’s [sic] complaints. They’d discovered substantial evidence that Eric was building pipe bombs. Guerra had considered it serious enough to draft an affidavit for a search warrant against the Harris home. For some reason the warrant was never taken before a judge. Guerra’s affidavit was convincing. It spelled out all the key components: motive, means, and opportunity.”
“A few days after the massacre, about a dozen local officials slipped away from the Feds and gathered clandestinely in an innocuous office in the county Open Space Department building. The purpose was to discuss the affidavit for a search warrant. How bad was it? What would they tell the public?”
“Guerra was driven to the meeting, and told never to discuss it outside the group. He complied.”
“The meeting was kept secret, too. That held for five years. March 22, 2004, Guerra would finally confess it happened, to investigators from the Colorado attorney general. He described it as ‘one of those cover-your-ass meetings.’”
“District Attorney Dave Thomas attended the meeting. He told the group he found no probable cause for the investigators to have executed the draft warrant—a finding ridiculed once it was released. He was formally contradicted by the Colorado attorney general in 2004.”
“At a notorious press conference ten days after the murders, Jeffco [Jefferson County] officials suppressed the affidavit and boldly lied about what they had known. They said they could not find Eric’s Web pages, they found no evidence of pipe bombs matching Eric’s descriptions, and had no record of the Browns meeting with Hicks. Guerra’s affidavit plainly contradicted all three claims. Officials had just spent days reviewing it. They would repeat the lies for years.”
“Several days after the meeting, Investigator Guerra’s file on his investigation of Eric disappeared for the first time.”
According to Cullen, a grand jury report released on September 16, 2004, found that the Guerra file should have been stored in three separate locations, both physical and electronic. All three were destroyed, it concluded—apparently during the summer of 1999. The Grand Jury described that destruction as “troubling.”
Appalachian School of Law—In the case of the law school, there is ample evidence that the Appalachian School of Law knew that the shooter, Peter Odighizuwa, was a threat. For example, his outbursts on campus—including throwing chairs and cursing people—were so well known and documented that he was barred from going into the Student Services office unless he was escorted by the president of the Student Bar Association or the dean, but he ignored those orders and went into the office, harassing its employees. His outbursts were so frequent and so widely discussed that he was nicknamed “the shooter,” a title that was sadly prophetic.
Odighizuwa’s penchant for violence was known even in Richmond. The morning after the shooting, Virginia Governor Mark Warner’s spokesperson admitted to news media that Odighizuwa had a history of mental instability that school officials knew about. The governor was a member of the Board of Trustees of the Law School at the time of the shooting.
The most damning evidence that officials of the law school had prior knowledge of the threat Odighizuwa posed can be found in court documents filed in Wise County, Virginia. According to those documents, which were filed as part of a lawsuit against the school, three female staff members, just weeks before the killings, complained to school officials about Odighizuwa, expressing fear for their safety as well as the safety of others in the school. The complaint was made in a school meeting. The school’s top three officials—President Lucius Ellsworth, Dean L. Anthony Sutin and Associate Dean Paul Lund—were said to be in attendance at the meeting. The documents assert that Ellsworth responded to the complaint by saying, “You women and your hormones and your intuition … there is nothing for you to be afraid of … it will be ok.” Within a month, Odighizuwa gunned down Dean Anthony Sutin, Professor Blackwell, and student, Angela Dales. He wounded three female students. Incredibly the school maintains that it had no indication or warning that Odighizuwa was potentially violent.
Virginia Tech—At Blacksburg too, the warning signs were readily apparent and ignored. Professor Lucinda Roy documents her as well as others’ attempts and to get Cho psychological help. In Chapter Two of, “No Right to Remain Silent,” she writes the following:
“… As soon as I read the poem that Seung-Hui Cho had written earlier for Nikki Giovanni’s class, I realized why she had asked me to look at it. The tone was angry and accusatory, and it appeared to be directed at Nikki and her students.”
“I followed a series of protocols I had developed during my time as chair. I consulted with trusted colleagues in the department—in this case Professor Fred D’Aguiar, who was serving with me as director of Creative Writing, and Cheryl Ruggiero, an instructor who had served as assistant chair in the Department of English. (Normally I would also have consulted Professor Nancy Metz, associate chair of English, but she was on research leave in the fall of 2002.) Fred, Cheryl, and I agreed that Nikki had been absolutely right to be concerned. Seung (the name he wished to go by) had read the poem aloud in class, and although his piece could perhaps be viewed as immature venting it could also be interpreted in a more threatening way. …”
“On October 18, 2005, I alerted units that dealt with troubled students at Virginia Tech that we had a serious problem. It was the first in a series of e-mails I sent and phone calls I made about Seung. In one of the e-mail notes I characterized what had occurred in this way:
In the poem he castigates all of the class, accusing them of genocide and cannibalism because they joked about eating snake and other animals. He says he is disgusted with them, and tells them they will all ‘burn in hell.’ He read the poem with dark glasses on … His name is Seung-Hui Cho and I had him in my lecture class last year. The students in Nikki’s class have asked for assistance because they are intimidated by him … Nikki no longer feels comfortable teaching the student, and students have also requested relief. As I understand it … I can remove Seung from Nikki’s class as long as I offer him a viable alternative. I will be suggesting that he take an Independent Study in lieu of the class, and that he work with either me or Fred D’Aguiar. Nikki, who is never rattled by anything, is genuinely concerned about this student’s behavior.”
Then on page 32 Roy asserts, “I alerted several units (about Cho) at once: the division of Student Affairs, the Cook Counseling Center (CCC), the College of Liberal Arts and Human Services (CLAHS), and the Virginia Tech Police Department (VTPD).” (To be continued)