For the family of Emily Hilscher, her loss has been catastrophic. Life without Emily has at times been nearly unbearable—the family is still a long way from recovery.
Before April 16, 2007, life for the Hilscher’s with their two daughters, Erica and Emily, was a cavalcade of activity and exuberance. Every evening the dinner table was theater. The two girls would re-enact funny commercials, or a scene from a movie, or events from the day at school. Bits of costumes were often involved.
Emily loved people and wanted everyone to be as happy as she was. She had a deep affection for animals, especially horses. Emily embodied life itself: she was vibrant, enthusiastic, and called herself “the pixie” because she weighed only about 115 lbs. According to Beth, Emily’s mother, “She was our sunshine.”
At five, “the pixie” announced she wanted to learn to ride horses and began taking lessons. She had two instructors and a broken arm by the time she was ten. After that she began riding with a man who would become her incredible friend, mentor, and trainer, Moody Aylor. Moody, an older man who is a strong disciplinarian, held Emily’s nose to the grindstone. When she would fall off a horse, he would not ask how she was, he would ask, “What did you do wrong?” The two would get into spirited arguments, but the bond between them was deep and strong. Emily adored Moody. She loved him as if he were a second father.
Like a father, Moody Aylor was proud when his star pupil, Emily, got on the equestrian team at Virginia Tech. One can imagine his anticipation of watching Emily become a national or even international competitor. Moody Aylor has been overwhelmed by her loss. Like a father, he will never forget.
On April 16, 2007, Beth and Eric Hilscher were up early that day as usual. They ran and owned a business designing and building radiology clinics around the country, from their home in Rappahannock County, Virginia—approximately 200 miles from Blacksburg and a little over 150 miles from Roanoke.
Every morning Beth exchanged instant messages with Emily, who would start her daily message to her mother the same way, “Good morning, mamacita!” The morning of April 16, 2007, however, there was no message from Emily. Beth thought it was odd, but didn’t suspect anything was wrong in the absence of her daughter’s email.
According to Beth, “The only way we knew Emily was shot was because her boyfriend, Karl Thornhill, contacted his mother to reach us after he had been contacted by his best friend, Ben. Ben had been contacted by his girlfriend, Heather Haugh, who was also Emily's roommate and told him that she arrived at the dorm that morning to find chaos and was questioned by police about Karl. Haugh arrived at the dorm between 7:30 a.m. and 8:00 a.m. Karl reached us after 8:00 a.m. and was driving from Radford to find Emily.”
Sometime around 8:00 am, Beth received a phone call from Birgitt Thornhill, Karl’s mother. Birgitt said something may have happened to Emily; she may have been shot, and they needed to call Karl to find out what was going on. Beth was stunned and screamed for her husband—how could this be? Birgitt said Karl was on his way to Tech to find Emily and find out what had happened.
Eric Hilscher got Karl on the phone. The young man put on a show of control and assured them he would find Emily and take care of her. While the Hilschers were frantically trying to find out about their daughter, on the other side of Rappahannock County, their good friend and FedEx driver, Gary Ford, was busy with deliveries. He got a call from another driver saying he was missing a package and wanted to know if Ford had it. In the process the driver asked, “Have you heard about what is going down at Tech?”
Ford turned on the radio and began listening to the streaming story of the shootings at Virginia Tech. For reasons he cannot explain, Ford stopped his deliveries and drove across the county to the Hilscher’s home. He had many other customers with children at Tech, but inexplicably he drove directly to the Hilschers’ home.
Meanwhile, Emily’s father called the Montgomery Regional Hospital in Blacksburg and asked if a female student had been brought in from Tech. The answer was, “Yes,” but they did not know her identity and her wounds were so serious that she had been transported to a trauma hospital in Roanoke.
Only after the Hilschers made numerous calls were they able to locate Emily at the trauma hospital in Roanoke. Eric called the hospital and just after 10:00 a.m. they confirmed that a young woman had been brought in from Blacksburg. Eric was told she had passed. Only after Eric’s begging did a hospital administrator go to look for her in the trauma unit. The administrator verified Emily’s identity by her "pixie" tattoo on her right hip. (That was the only identification made until the Hilschers saw Emily the next morning after her autopsy.)
What is important to the Hilschers is, “Emily was shot; she was transported as a Jane Doe even though she was taken from her dorm room. No one called to tell us she had been shot. Repeat...no one. Not the Virginia Tech Police. Not the Virginia Tech administration. No one at the hospitals because they couldn't...she was a Jane Doe.” The Hilschers want to know, “How could that be?”
Both Beth and Eric Hilscher would later find out that Emily had been transported to Montgomery Hospital where she was stabilized, but Montgomery Hospital could not do any more for her and they transported her to Carilion in Roanoke because that hospital has an advanced trauma unit. She could not be airlifted because the winds were too high.
Stunned and in disbelief, Eric Hilscher hung up the phone. His beautiful daughter, the wonderful young woman who was the embodiment of all that was good and sweet in life, was dead—it was beyond comprehension.
Just as the Hilschers got the message no parent ever wants to get, Gary Ford, the FedEx driver arrived. Once Ford confirmed his worst fears, he told the Hilscher’s to pack; he would take care of everything. The Hilschers’ older daughter, Erica, was a student at Longwood. Ford made arrangements to meet and pick Erica up at a rest stop on I-64, en route to Roanoke. Within a couple of hours of learning about Emily’s death, Gary drove the Hilschers and stayed with them for the next two days, getting them where they needed to go an making arrangements to get Emily home.
“We called our local police department in Rappahannock to see if they had been contacted by any authorities regarding Emily, but they had not. We informed our police department that we had learned of Emily's death and were heading for Roanoke. We did not get a call confirming Emily's death until approximately 3:00 p.m., and it was from our Rappahannock County police. We never got a call from anyone else. It is possible, that we might have been able to reach Emily before her passing if someone had called us. And why wouldn't someone call us? Do you just transport someone and forget about her? Not knowing that there was more violence to come that morning, why didn't Virginia Tech do more to help Emily?”
When they arrived at the trauma hospital in Roanoke, the Hilschers were told they could not see their daughter until the next day. She had already been transferred to the coroner's office.
After leaving the Roanoke hospital, Gary drove the Hilschers to Karl Thornhill’s townhouse in Blacksburg. The Hilschers pulled up to Thornhill’s townhouse just after the Blacksburg police SWAT team had left. The police had forced Karl Thornhill, his sister, and his mother to lie face down on the living room floor while they searched for possible evidence that Karl was involved in the mass shootings.
Apparently, the Blacksburg police still believed Karl had something to do with Emily's death. The Thornhills pleaded with the police to finish as quickly as they could as they knew the Hilschers would be arriving at any time, and that it would be upsetting for them to find the police there. Karl and his mother, Birgitt, said they were shocked that after the police left the house, they stood out in the parking lot and talked. They (the police) were even heard to be laughing about something. It was all surreal, as Karl was suffering from the death of his girlfriend and yet was treated badly for the second time that day.
The search had taken place in the late afternoon—almost seven hours after Thornhill had been determined not to be “a person of interest” in the killings. Just as in Chief Flinchum’s incompetent handling of the crime scene at West Ambler Johnston Hall, the Blacksburg police’s clumsy and abrasive handling of the Thornhills violated standard legal and police policy—the police did not show the Thornhills their search warrant until they had entered the house and the search was under way—technically breaking the law.
From Karl Thornhill’s townhouse, Gary drove the Hilschers back to Roanoke. Some people can be incredibly kind. In a wonderful, thoughtful, and generous act of kindness, Wendy Blair, the owner of Rose Hill Bed and Breakfast in Roanoke had called the hospital in Roanoke and offered the Hilschers a place to stay away from the media. The Hilschers spent the night at Rose Hill. Blair kept their presence a secret in order to keep the media out. The next morning she made them breakfast and packed a bag of healthy snacks for them. This act of kindness will forever be with the Hilschers. After breakfast, the Hilschers drove to the hospital where Eric, Beth, and Erica spent time by themselves with Emily. Karl Thornhill arrived at the hospital shortly after the Hilschers. Later that morning, Karl too spent time alone with Emily, the young woman he loved so much.
The question that kept repeating in the Hilschers’ minds was why the school or the police hadn’t notified them their daughter had been shot? They might have gotten to the hospital and been with Emily before she died. They might have been able to comfort her in her last hours. In a meeting with Chief Flinchum several months later, Beth Hilscher posed the question, “Why didn’t you notify us that Emily was shot?” The chief responded, “It is not the job of the police to notify the families, the hospitals usually take care of that.”
Sometime in the early afternoon on Tuesday, the Hilschers made arrangements for an ambulance to carry their daughter’s body home. Without signing any papers or meeting with anyone, the hospital loaded Emily into an ambulance that followed about 40 minutes behind the Hilschers as they began their tearful, painful, solemn three-hour trip home—the first steps into a long road of despair, anger, and depression.
To quote Beth Hilscher, “Once we learned of the circumstances surrounding the death of Emily and the 31 others, we were shocked to learn of Cho's path of behavior that lead to that day, and the involvement of the Virginia Tech Police Department with him. While there were many instances over the course of his attendance at Virginia Tech of unacceptable behavior, one situation stands out in particular. It is our understanding that the Virginia Tech police were called to investigate the wellbeing of Cho on December 13 after a suitemate notified them that Cho had sent him an alarming Instant Message. The police took Cho to the station for evaluation and it was determined that a counselor from the New River Valley Community Services Board should come and evaluate him. That counselor determined that Cho was an ‘imminent danger to self or others’. Cho was transported to St. Albans Psychiatric Hospital for evaluation. To make a long story short, it was determined by a judge that Cho, while not being found to be a danger to self or others, was still to receive follow-up outpatient treatment.“
When Beth Hilscher asked Chief Flinchum how Cho was able to return to campus after his commitment hearing without having to check in with anyone, his response was that the police department did not have any policy for follow up once a student leaves for a mental health evaluation. Beth Hilscher questioned whether they (the police) should have taken Cho's dorm key and had him report to them to retrieve it as a way of monitoring him, as they had felt strongly enough about his situation that they had called for the evaluation. She was again told that there was no process to follow up.
When the Hilschers learned that the Cook Counseling Center received a psychiatric summary from St. Albans, but no one there followed up either, they were stunned. According to Beth, “How interesting that Cho's records disappeared from the Cook Counseling Center. How interesting that when they were found, they were devoid of any information.”
After Emily died, the Hilschers had a meeting with a Virginia Tech detective and an FBI agent. They came to the Hilschers’ home. According to Beth Hilscher, “We asked that we be allowed to come and clean out Emily's dorm room on our own. It was not made clear at that time that her room was the actual location of the shootings. However, a couple of days later we were called and told we could come to Tech to collect Emily's belongings and that they had been packed up. We did drive down to get her things and found that her dorm room had been totally emptied and painted a sterile white. Her belongings were packed in several boxes and were in a storage room in the building. When we got home we found that many of Emily's belongings were missing. There was no accounting for them. Our complaints fell on deaf ears. Our liaison with Virginia Tech was a wonderful man named Kenny Webb. He was the interim chair in Emily's school and had taken on the assignment of caring for us. He worked hard to find answers for us about Emily's missing belongings and he too came up empty. We had been given a hand-written and very inadequate inventory, which did not exactly match the contents of the boxes, and there was no accounting for things that may have been destroyed. We were never given the names or contact info for the people who packed up Emily's room, in spite of our inquiries. The items were gone and that was that. Some of the missing items had been very dear to Emily.”
“As time has passed, we have become more and more angry with the Virginia Tech administration. No one has ever called us. They never will. There has been a continuous denial of any wrongdoing on the part of the administration and the police. There are continuing offers for football tickets from Steger's office and flowers come every Christmas. The one thing we want the most, we will never get ... an apology. An admission that the university failed to respond to the many shouts for attention from Cho, failed to properly notify us of our daughter's plight, failed to protect students required to live on campus, and failed to notify students and staff of potential danger.”
Over the months to come, the Hilschers looked for a way of recovering from their loss. They decided they had to get away and do something together that was challenging and yet provided time together to heal. They bought a 50’ schooner in the fall of 2008, packed up and the three of them sailed to the Bahamas for six months. The trip provided some respite, but when they returned, everything was waiting for them—the memories, the horror of what had happened all came flooding back, along with the need to pick up the pieces and get back to work.
It was difficult, next to impossible to concentrate on work. Between the failing economy and the difficulty in concentrating, Eric and Beth watched their business shrink to nothing. It was a business they had built from scratch over eleven years. Beth sought counseling for three and one-half years, but Eric, a powerful man, relied on his wife and daughter to help him with his grief. They had built their home themselves and it was where they raised their two girls; now, the family home had become a sad, quiet place place of memories, a place without hope. They sold their home and made a needed change by moving to Richmond. Their daughter Erica was there, working as a counselor serving the homeless, and they wanted to be closer to her.
The three are still trying to move on, and every day they try to put more of the pieces of their lives back together. There are good days and there are bad days. The Hilschers have had the pleasure of meeting and getting to know some wonderful professors, instructors and students at Virginia Tech. There were some outstanding people at Virginia Tech such as Kenny Webb, the Hilschers’ mentor, and Teresa McDonald, Emily’s equestrian coach. They continue to be friends today.
“The loss of Emily has been devastating to us, of course. We have struggled as a family to take care of each other. It has been very difficult, and continues to be, to focus our energy on work. We have left our home of 15 years to be near our daughter, Erica, and to see if a new place will help us to heal.”
“We ask ourselves everyday why this tragedy had to happen. We have found that with time our grief does not go away, it merely changes. We are thankful for the many friends and family who continue to help and support us. We live in a way that would make Emily proud of us. We try to look forward and make good things happen, as Emily always did.” (To be continued)