Saturday, May 6, 2017


Hour after hour, the testimony went over the facts of the case. At 8:16 a.m., Emily Hilscher’s roommate, Heather Haugh, returned to the dormitory and was questioned. It was during this questioning that the name of Emily’s boyfriend, Karl Thornhill, was raised. Thornhill had dropped Hilscher off that morning and proceeded to Radford University where he had an 8:00 a.m. class.

Haugh went on a police computer and opened her Facebook page to show the police pictures of Thornhill, including a photo Emily took of Thornhill at a shooting range. The photo shows Thornhill holding what appears to be a .22 rifle. Based on that information the police made Thornhill a “person of interest” and began to search for him on campus, but still did not warn the campus of their suspicions or the fact that a killer was on the loose.

Andy Goddard and the jury listened to the defense’s flimsy line of reasoning—Thornhill is Hilscher’s boyfriend and he goes to shooting ranges, so he must have shot her—to justify the police officer’s decision to classify the double homicide as a “domestic incident.” The defense also said that because the victims were male and female, that appeared to make the murders some sort of domestic-related incident. But there was absolutely no evidence to support this contention. President Steger testified that he was told by Chief Flinchum at 8:11 a.m. that the deaths were a domestic incident. Andy could only wonder if classifying a murder as a domestic incident makes the person firing the gun less dangerous.

If you factor in the following, absolutely nothing makes sense about the assumptions the police were making and the actions they took in the first hour after the shootings. First, if Karl Thornhill was the killer, why did he drop Emily Hilscher off at her dorm and then some time shortly thereafter return to her room and kill her? Why bring her back to the dorm to kill her and risk the chance of witnesses?

Second, why kill Ryan Clark? It was well known that Ryan, the other victim, had no romantic interest in Emily Hilscher—this would have ruled out a love triangle. Furthermore, to say that Thornhill was a suspect because he went to shooting ranges was ludicrous. Guns and shooting ranges are a way of life in rural Virginia.       

I agree with Andy Goddard: The testimony of President Charles Steger, Virginia Tech Police Chief Flinchum, and Virginia Tech Associate Vice President for Public Relations Larry Hincker, can only be described in one word, “bewildering.” For example, on the witness stand President Steger admitted that the killer could have been on campus—even hiding in West Ambler Johnston Hall. But when he was informed of the murders, it never occurred to him to issue a warning. Steger’s own words before the jury appeared to indict him; he admitted that no one knew where the gunman was, and he had no thought of warning.

Even more disturbing, Flinchum testified that if the two dead students were “targeted” then the shooter would not be dangerous. How and why could Flinchum make this assertion? He tried to explain that he thought the shootings in room 4040 were an isolated incident, and thus they were targeted murders. There are two problems with this argument. First, room 4040 is not really isolated. It is on the middle floor of a seven-story building, near the elevators and half way along that wing of West Ambler Johnston Hall. Hardly isolated and the police knew that fact—they had to use the elevators and pass other rooms to get to 4040. The second problem is that Flinchum gave no evidence in his testimony as to how and why “targeted” murders mean the killers are not dangerous to others. Flinchum’s assertion left Andy thunderstruck.

When Chief Flinchum was questioned about the timeline and asked if he knew the timeline used by President Steger was wrong, he said he didn’t recall. Flinchum acknowledged that he prepared a timeline for the panel and agreed that there were differences with the one used by Steger. Here, Flinchum—just as Hincker—suffered from faulty memory. He could not recall ever correcting Steger. When Flinchum was pressed on the stand as to why he did not tell the panel about the timeline errors, he said he assumed they knew—the errors were common knowledge. But if the errors were commonly known, why weren’t they corrected? By this point in time, Andy Goddard was getting a headache from the verbal twists and turns of school officials.

Flinchum asserted that when the first version of the Governor’s report came out he knew of the errors and called them to the attention of Kay Heidbreder, general counsel and Special Assistant to the Attorney General assigned to Virginia Tech. He did not call the errors to the attention of the panel chair, Massengill. The unanswered question is what did Heidbreder do with the information? If the state paid TriData over $700,000 to write and correct the report, didn’t Heidbreder have an immediate responsibility to report the errors in the report? If she did not, was she negligent? Again, Goddard thought, “How could this woman be working for the defense given the role she played at the university?”

The school’s defense attorneys could not explain away the nearly two and one-half hour gap following the double homicide at West Ambler Johnston Hall and the school’s decision to alert the campus to the shooting. The jury saw through the defense’s lame attempts to justify the Steger administration’s inaction.

Indeed, even for the casual observer it is next to impossible to explain why the school did not warn the university community that two people had been murdered and that their killer was on the loose. How could the school not see a threat? No one could predict the massacre at Norris Hall. But how could anyone who was aware of the two murders on campus, with no known motive, and the perpetrator’s identity and whereabouts unknown, make the assumption that no potential threat existed? What did the Steger administration and the Virginia Tech police expect the killer to do—just lay down his weapon and surrender after murdering two people? The warning came over two hours after the double homicide and just minutes before Seung Hui Cho slaughtered 30 people in Norris Hall. The defense attorneys’ justification for the time lag fell on deaf ears. (To be continued)

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