On Wednesday of the trial testimony became argumentative. Andy zeroed in on the contentious exchange between the plaintiff’s attorney, Bob Hall, and two Virginia Tech employees—Ralph Byers, Tech Government Relations Director, and Kim O’Rouke, Chief of Staff to University President Charles Steger. To Andy, Byers’ hostility appeared defensive, as if he might be pushed into areas he did not want to discuss. Byers was clearly agitated; it was as if he thought that he might be forced to deviate from his rehearsed remarks and inadvertently say something that would reflect negatively on the school and its president.
Two emails were brought up that made Byers particularly uncomfortable and defensive. These emails were sent very early in the process, long before the Policy Group had had a chance to discuss much. The first was sent to Laura Fornash, who worked as the university’s General Assembly lobbyist in Richmond and later became Virginia’s Secretary of Education under Governor McDonnell. Byers directed Fornash to email the Governor’s office that Virginia Tech police had “one (student) dead and one (student) injured and a gunman on the loose.” He further directed Fornash to convey that the information should not be released to anyone outside the Governor’s office.
Byers feebly tried to back away from the phrase “gunman on the loose” because it deals a mortal blow to the school’s defense for not warning the campus. While other defense witnesses had problems remembering the actions of school officials, Byers had no problem in saying that no one on the Policy Group—convened to handle the crisis and with the authority to urge President Steger to issue a warning—used the phrase, “gunman on the loose.” Those words were, Byers contended, were shorthand for “the perpetrator has not been apprehended yet.”
A question that was not raised in the courtroom, but that needs to be answered, is why Byers went through a lobbyist and did not directly contact the governor’s office? Bad judgment again seems to have reared its ugly head. Byers had used Fornash in the past as a front person giving Fornash message control, and that appears to be the motivation in this case. Common sense, however, given the gravity of the crime, would seem to dictate contacting the governor directly and then the lobbyist.
The second email Byers sent was to his administrative assistant to lock the door to her office, where she sat alone while the Policy Group met nearby in Steger’s boardroom. This time, Byers explained his actions by saying he wanted to protect his assistant from inquiries about the shootings once word got out. Pressed by Hall, he did admit that he was being cautious.
Byers emphasized the importance that members of the Policy Group placed on student safety. But his answer to Hall’s question of how do you keep the students safe by keeping them ignorant about a possible threat, he could only give a limp response: “You do what we were doing. You try to do the best you can with information you have at the time.”
Andy Goddard could only shake his head in disbelief as he listened to Byers. Goddard remembered watching his son struggle to recover from his four gunshot wounds, he remembered the blood-soaked sheets, he remembered wanting to help his son but not knowing how—that was a battle Colin had fought on his own, and continued to fight through his recovery. Andy Goddard had felt so helpless and so vulnerable. He put his head in his hands thought, “If this is the best you school officials could have done with the information you had at the time, you should never hold any position of responsibility.” (To be continued)