Andy Goddard religiously sat in the courtroom throughout the trial. He listened in amazement to school officials’ robotic, sterile attempts to defend and explain away their limp response to the early morning murder scene.
As he took notes, time and time again Andy found himself writing, “I don’t know the details,” “I don’t remember,” “It depends on what you mean by immediately,” and “I have no recollection.” When he was finished listening to Chief Flinchum’s testimony, followed then by a number of university officials including the Associate Vice President of University Relations Lawrence Hincker and President Charles Steger, he could not help but wonder if some sort of collective dementia had hit the school hierarchy.
Andy concentrated on what little substance the defense witnesses said, and took copious notes. But it was only in the evening, when he went over what he had written, that he realized the fine degree to which the school’s defenders had been coached. Their answers read as if they had been reciting from a script. In fact, the answers often did not match the questions. The whole scene struck him as an incredibly well-rehearsed theatrical charade.
When asked hard-hitting questions by the plaintiff’s attorney, defense witnesses were repeatedly at a loss for details and specifics, while others said it was all a blur. For example, Hincker admitted that the erroneous timeline President Steger used at his 7:40 p.m. press conference the evening of the 16th was typed on his computer, but he didn’t know who had typed it, nor who had sent it to his personal computer where it could be printed and distributed to the press. Hincker was at loss to say who else might have written it or who would have had access to the computer. In sum, he denied all knowledge of the erroneous timeline yet, somehow, it was mysteriously provided to President Steger and was the “factual” chronology of events presented on national television. Remember, this press conference occurred almost 12 hours following the shooting, which was more than a sufficient amount of time for Virginia Tech officials to confirm the facts they were about to share with the entire world. Unfortunately, that also allowed time to modify “facts” as well. Among a number of issues contained in the false timeline presented during Steger’s press conference was the critical error associated with Karl Thornhill and the time he was actually identified as a person of interest—the false timeline put it at 7:30 a.m.; in fact, the correct time was not before 8:30 a.m., more than an hour after the dorm shootings had occurred.
Hincker, Flinchum, and others knew about those errors and did next to nothing to correct the record for either the public or investigators. This meant that the Governor’s Review Panel worked from flawed information—and school officials were aware of those flaws. It appears that school officials knowingly allowed the incorrect timeline to stand because it gave the school a fig leaf to cover the fact that no warning had been issued. The email issued at 9:50 a.m., as 30 people were being murdered, said there was a gunman loose on campus—that had been true since 7:15 a.m.
The fabricated timeline was the school’s weak excuse for not warning the campus. As flimsy as the alibi as was, Tech could argue that if the first two shootings were a domestic incident and that the police had a person of interest, there was less urgency to warn. Whoever typed the phony timeline knew that line of argument—Hincker undoubtedly knew that argument even if he wasn’t the typist.
Hincker evaded all questions about this crucial fact. The erroneous timeline was in the initial version of the Governor’s Review Panel Report and was only corrected at the last minute in the final version. By then it was too late; the school’s tactics appeared to be working. The vast majority of the families had settled and most of the general public had bought the lie about the sequence of events. When the initial report was released with the incorrect timeline, Hincker did not contact the panel to call the error to their attention.
It is truly remarkable that Hincker, who participated in preparing information going to the panel, said nothing about the timeline’s errors. When asked on the witness stand if he contacted the panel chairman, Col. Gerald Massengill, about the problems, Hincker said, “no.” Hincker also testified that it was “not his place” to call Massengill when the first report was issued even though he knew it was wrong. The errors then, were known, and Hincker, who knew that fact, admitted on the witness stand that he said nothing.
Andy Goddard, however, could not forget; he could not hedge. For him there was no blur. For Andy Goddard, the events of April 16, 2007 were clear and vivid. The memory of that day still follows him.
On the morning of the massacre there was one group of individuals who controlled the decisions surrounding sending communications to the campus, and given their respective roles in the university hierarchy would need to know details about what was going on, and when. That group, called “The Policy Group,” was chaired by President Steger. Among the ten members in attendance that morning were Larry Hincker (Associate Vice President for University Relations), Ralph Byers (Director of Government Relations), Kim O’Rourke (Chief of Staff to President Steger), and Kay Heidbreder (University Counsel). Each was called to testify during the trial.
Although the source of the false timeline was never established during the trial, given the “selective amnesia” that seemed to afflict university officials who were placed under oath, I offer the following possible scenario.
As the events of April 16th unfolded, the Policy Group would need to know the details of the events that occurred in order to communicate with the families, government officials and the media. Additionally, they must have realized they could be faced with legal claims against the university. So, it makes sense that the school wanted close control of all communications. I propose that to meet both the demand for information from the public and the need to provide protection from exposure to legal actions, there appears to have been only one person who had both firsthand knowledge of all the information being provided to the Policy Group, as well as the expertise to determine what areas might expose Virginia Tech and the state to legal action if the truth about the timeline and actions taken by officials became known. That person, of course, would be University Counsel Kay Heidbreder. It would make sense for someone in hier position to compose, or at least review, any communications going out to the public. In this scenario, she may well have been involved in the promulgation of the flawed timeline.
It is also important to note that Heidbreder was part of the defense team at the trial even though she was part of the Policy Group on April 16, 2007—a very clear conflict of interest. It is hard to believe that Ms. Heidbreder, a lawyer, or the defense team, would miss that point.
Did she type the timline on Hinker’s laptop, sign off on it after he’d typed it, or did she in fact havy anything to do with it? We will never know, since no member of the Policy Group can recall any information about who wrote the timeline.
For Andy Goddard, whose son was seriously wounded, there was no forgetting the events of April 16, 2007. (To be continued)