Cam­pus Shut­down Never Con­sid­ered

The Washington Post Sunday - - Front Page - By Michael D. Shear

Two stu­dents were dead in a dor­mi­tory when Vir­ginia Tech Pres­i­dent Charles W. Ste­ger and his two top lieu­tenants gath­ered to as­sess the shoot­ings and the univer­sity’s re­sponse in Bur­russ Hall at 8:25 a.m. Mon­day.

Cam­pus Po­lice Chief Wen­dell Flinchum soon called in from the dorm: The po­lice were on top of it and were al­ready look­ing for the dead girl’s boyfriend, he told Vir­ginia Tech’s ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent, its provost and Ste­ger. The West Am­bler John­ston Res­i­dence Hall was se­cure, he said, with of­fi­cers sur­round- ing it. The sit­u­a­tion was con­tained.

That as­sump­tion could not have been more wrong. But was it avoid­able? That is among the ques­tions that an in­de­pen­dent com­mis­sion will be in­ves­ti­gat­ing to de­ter­mine whether cam­pus of­fi­cials might have averted a catas­tro­phe had they acted dif­fer­ently be­tween Se­ung Hui Cho’s first vic­tim and his last. For al­most 21⁄ hours af­ter the ini­tial alert at

2 7:15 a.m., a rapidly swelling team of law en­force­ment of­fi­cers took steps that Flinchum and other top po­lice of­fi­cials say were ap­pro­pri­ate to in­ves­ti­gate a dou­ble mur­der. But in fact, they were wit­ness­ing only the first

act of the most deadly mass shoot­ing by an in­di­vid­ual in U.S. his­tory. While po­lice pur­sued what they ex­pected to turn out to be a crime of pas­sion, Cho mailed his vi­o­lent man­i­festo and headed for Nor­ris Hall.

The com­mis­sion, ap­pointed by Gov. Ti­mothy M. Kaine (D), will ex­am­ine the univer­sity’s cri­sis man­age­ment and its fail­ure to in­form the col­lege com­mu­nity of the dorm shoot­ing un­til 19 min­utes be­fore Cho started killing 30 more peo­ple at Nor­ris. Its goal is to elu­ci­date any lessons that might help other schools or in­sti­tu­tions pre­vent sim­i­lar at­tacks.

“There are as­sump­tions that ob­vi­ously drove some con­clu­sions,” said for­mer home­land se­cu­rity sec­re­tary Tom Ridge, a mem­ber of the gov­er­nor’s com­mis­sion. The chiefs of the cam­pus po­lice, Blacks­burg force and state po­lice por­trayed a rou­tine, if tragic, crime scene at the dorm that gave no hint of the trou­ble to come. They said they never con­sid­ered shut­ting down the cam­pus and ar­gued that do­ing so might have re­sulted in even more blood­shed.

In in-depth in­ter­views Thurs­day and Fri­day, the three chiefs said they fol­lowed what they de­scribed as proper po­lice pro­ce­dure in in­ves­ti­gat­ing the dou­ble mur­der and se­cur­ing West AJ, as the dorm is known. In the vast ma­jor­ity of cases, find­ing a man and a wo­man dead in a room leads to a do­mes­tic tri­an­gle, they said. And they noted that in a dorm with al­most 900 stu­dents, the killings were lim­ited to two, giv­ing them no rea­son to fear a mass mur­derer.

“There are two sep­a­rate in­ci­dents,” Flinchum said. “We had a dou­ble homi­cide in a dor­mi­tory. None of that in­for­ma­tion gave us any thought to be­lieve that this other thing, this other in­ci­dent, was go­ing to hap­pen two hours later.”

An­gry par­ents, de­spon­dent stu­dents and some se­cu­rity ad­vo­cates have said the cam­pus should have been shut down im­me­di­ately, stu­dents waved off and pro­fes­sors sent home be­fore Cho could kill so many more in his sec­ond shoot­ing at Nor­ris, an aca­demic build­ing across cam­pus.

“We can’t know what was go­ing on in their heads, but they needed to be more timely in their warn­ing to their stu­dents,” said Kather­ine An­dri­ole, as­sis­tant pro­gram di­rec­tor for Se­cu­rity on Cam­pus, a na­tional ad­vo­cacy group.

“They said this was a do­mes­tic dis­tur­bance, but it was a shoot­ing in a dorm,” said Susan Rus­sell of New­port News, whose son at­tends Vir­ginia Tech. Even be­fore the shoot­ing, Rus­sell was push­ing a bill in the state leg­is­la­ture to re­quire state or lo­cal po­lice to as­sume ju­ris­dic­tion over felonies from cam­pus po­lice.

“I re­ally do in my heart be­lieve that if they had done some­thing dif­fer­ently, this wouldn’t have oc­curred,” she said.

Ste­ger and other top ad­min­is­tra­tors de­clined to be in­ter­viewed. The chiefs said the crit­i­cism ben­e­fits from in­for­ma­tion po­lice did not have at the time.

Shut­ting down the cam­pus — keep­ing ev­ery­one in place — was not a le­git­i­mate op­tion, they said. By the time po­lice had se­cured the dorm, the school day was well un­der­way. Thou­sands of stu­dents had slung back­packs on their shoul­ders and were on their way to school. There was no way to con­tact them all. In a brief­ing to the school’s Board of Vis­i­tors last week, po­lice also said a lock­down could have trapped an an­gry Cho inside his dorm, mak­ing things worse.

“This is a huge, huge cam­pus,” Flinchum said. “It’s not like you’re lock­ing down one build­ing to do this. You have over 200 build­ings. Just be­cause you call it a lock­down doesn’t keep peo­ple from still mov­ing about the cam­pus and do­ing what they want to do.”

The chief is not alone in that view. “Try­ing to lock down a col­lege cam­pus with over 25,000 peo­ple in over a dozen build­ings spread across acres and acres presents monumental chal­lenges. It is like try­ing to lock down an en­tire city,” said Ken­neth S. Trump, pres­i­dent of Na­tional School Safety and Se­cu­rity Ser­vices, a con­sult­ing firm.

The chiefs say such chal­lenges may not be ob­vi­ous to out­side ob­servers.

“When the pub­lic sees it, they see it from the end back to the be­gin­ning,” said State Po­lice Su­per­in­ten­dent W. Steven Fla­herty. “They have the ben­e­fit of know­ing ev­ery­thing. No one knew Cho ex­isted un­til he started shoot­ing peo­ple.”

A Quick Con­clu­sion

Flinchum ar­rived at West AJ a few min­utes af­ter a sin- gle of­fi­cer re­sponded to a 7:15 a.m. res­cue call. Blacks­burg Po­lice Chief Kim­ber­ley S. Cran­nis showed up a few min­utes later, hav­ing learned of the sit­u­a­tion on her ra­dio.

Within min­utes, the fourth floor was evac­u­ated and de­tec­tives were search­ing for ev­i­dence. Two SWAT teams, one from each of their small de­part­ments, were headed for the sprawl­ing cam­pus. Of­fi­cers were sta­tioned at ex­its, and oth­ers be­gan search­ing the build­ing.

“We con­sid­ered a lot of pos­si­bil­i­ties,” Flinchum said. “Could it be a mur­der-sui­cide? Could it be a do­mes­tic sit­u­a­tion? We had to find peo­ple that were the last peo­ple to see th­ese two in­di­vid­u­als alive.”

Of­fi­cers be­lieved that the girl, fresh­man Emily Hilscher, was prob­a­bly killed by some­one she knew, maybe a boyfriend who came to the dorm and be­came en­raged to find her with the young man whom he also killed, Ryan Clark.

They be­gan in­ter­view­ing the shaken and fright­ened stu­dents in the dorm about Hilscher and Clark, a res­i­dent ad­viser who, it was later learned, came to the room only when he heard gun­shots.

Be­fore long, po­lice had dis­cov­ered that Hilscher’s boyfriend, Karl D. Thornhill, had dropped her off at the dorm and that he owned guns — and knew how to use them. He had, in fact, re­cently been to a shoot­ing range, one of the girl’s friends told po­lice.

With stu­dents start­ing to talk about the shoot­ing and the scene seem­ingly un­der con­trol, at 9:26 a.m., Ste­ger’s group sent the first e-mail to stu­dents and fac­ulty that a shoot­ing had oc­curred at West AJ. “Po­lice are on the scene and are in­ves­ti­gat­ing. The univer­sity com­mu­nity is urged to be cau­tious,” the e-mail said.

Whether that was the right ac­tion at the right time will be a key fo­cus of the com­mis­sion ap­pointed by Kaine, ac­cord­ing to Ridge.

“There’s a le­git­i­mate area of deep in­quiry,” he said. “That is a ques­tion on the mind of ev­ery­one who knows just a lit­tle bit about what tran­spired.”

Fla­herty said he wel­comes the in­quiry. But he said: “It’s too soon right now to jump to knee-jerk con­clu­sions. If we had 50 troop­ers out on the pa­rade grounds or side­walks or wher­ever we thought Cho was go­ing, would we have rec­og­nized him as be­ing any dif­fer­ent?”

A Gun­man Is Loose

It was the sound of gun­fire, re­ported in a wave of 911 calls, that shat­tered the of­fi­cers’ con­fi­dence at 9:45 a.m.

Word of an “ac­tive shooter” came over Flinchum’s ra­dio as he was stand­ing out­side the dorm, di­rect­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tion. It was heard in Bur­russ Hall, where Ste­ger’s team was mon­i­tor­ing the sit­u­a­tion. And it was heard on Route 460, where po­lice were ques­tion­ing Thornhill, Hilscher’s boyfriend. He was re­leased and has not been charged.

Of­fi­cers swarmed. A sec­ond e-mail was sent at 9:50 a.m., so quickly that it con­tained a mis­placed cap­i­tal let­ter: “PLease stay put,” it com­manded. “A gun­man is loose on cam­pus. Stay in build­ings un­til fur­ther no­tice. Stay away from all win­dows.”

Flinchum and Cran­nis got in their cars and drove across cam­pus, ar­riv­ing at the east en­trance to Nor­ris Hall just mo­ments af­ter SWAT teams had bro­ken through the build­ing’s main en­trance, which had been chained shut.

Cho had killed him­self, the shoot­ing had stopped, and the chiefs ran to the sec­ond floor, where the car­nage was.

“It was a to­tal dis­be­lief of what I was see­ing,” Cran­nis said. “Hor­rific.” Flinchum de­scribed it as “heart-wrench­ing.” In his of­fice out­side Rich­mond, Fla­herty also got word of the es­ca­lat­ing cri­sis. He quickly as­sem­bled his ex­ec­u­tive staff and called his boss, Sec­re­tary of Pub­lic Safety John W. Mar­shall. By 11 a.m., both men were in Fla­herty’s black 2006 Chevy Im­pala.

Fla­herty drove — blue light blaz­ing the en­tire 200 miles — as Mar­shall jug­gled two cell­phones and two Black­Ber­rys. They were in Blacks­burg be­fore 2 p.m. “The car­nage,” Fla­herty said. “The hu­man­ity that lie there in those four class­rooms and stair­well. The ev­i­dence strewn all about, which gives you some sense of the chaos and panic.”

Flinchum says he can­not re­mem­ber the pas­sage of time clearly af­ter that. “I wasn’t look­ing at my watch. It was on­go­ing; it was chaotic,” he said. “Our fo­cus was sav­ing peo­ple at the time.”

At some point, he re­calls help­ing “a young lady out to the po­lice ve­hi­cle. I re­mem­ber do­ing that.”

Flinchum’s po­lice de­part­ment has 55 peo­ple to cover the 2,600-acre cam­pus, which has about 7,000 staff and fac­ulty mem­bers in ad­di­tion to its 26,000 stu­dents. It is a fully ac­cred­ited force with full po­lice pow­ers. Its mem­bers are trained in ways sim­i­lar to de­part­ments across the state. But its of­fi­cers rarely con­front se­ri­ous vi­o­lence.

“I want to con­tinue to work on pro­grams such as the Adopt-a-Hall pro­gram, the Park, Walk, Talk pro­gram, and the Stu­dent Po­lice Academy,” Flinchum told a col­lege news­pa­per when he be­came act­ing chief in July.

By late morn­ing, help for the Tech force be­gan ar­riv­ing from ev­ery­where. State troop­ers, blocked by high winds from us­ing he­li­copters, raced along the high­ways. Po­lice of­fi­cers and sher­iff’s deputies from other ju­ris­dic­tions ar­rived with­out be­ing asked.

“We’re a small com­mu­nity up here,” Flinchum said. “Be­cause of the mag­ni­tude of this crime, I needed more re­sources.”

The Right Way

Im­me­di­ately af­ter Tues­day’s me­mo­rial con­vo­ca­tion, at­tended by Kaine and Pres­i­dent Bush among oth­ers, the Vir­ginia Tech Board of Vis­i­tors met pri­vately, grilling Flinchum, Ste­ger, Cran­nis and Fla­herty, ac­cord­ing to two par­tic­i­pants.

Could se­cu­rity cam­eras have helped, they asked? Per­haps, the group con­cluded, but sev­eral openly wor­ried about the “Big Brother” con­cerns and asked where cam­eras would be put. In park­ing lots? In all dorms?

Would search­ing the cam­pus have helped? Of­fi­cials said they doubted any­one would have no­ticed Cho as he crossed cam­pus.

They talked about the school’s siren sys­tem, which sounded just af­ter 9:45 a.m. School of­fi­cials ex­plained that the sys­tem is in­tended to warn peo­ple who are out­side dur­ing a weather-re­lated threat such as a tor­nado and would not have been an ef­fec­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tion tool af­ter the first dorm killings.

Some­one asked about the state’s emer­gency plan, which was up­dated af­ter an es­caped in­mate killed two peo­ple, in­clud­ing one near Vir­ginia Tech, and was cap­tured on cam­pus dur­ing a man­hunt in Au­gust. The plan on the univer­sity’s Web site is dated May 2005, or 15 months be­fore the in­ci­dent last sum­mer. A univer­sity spokesman, Mark Owc­sarski, was not able to pro­vide a copy of the up­dated plan.

Af­ter more than an hour, the group ap­peared sat­is­fied but stopped short of is­su­ing a state­ment of sup­port.

Said one mem­ber, who de­clined to be iden­ti­fied be­cause the group had agreed to keep the meet­ing private: “We all con­cluded, at least ini­tially, that ev­ery­thing kind of went the right way.”

But out­side of the board room, oth­ers have ex­pressed doubt about whether the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pri­or­i­ties were in or­der. “Re­gard­less of your im­age, it is your duty when this oc­curs to keep your stu­dents in­formed,” An­dri­ole said. Staff writ­ers David S. Fal­lis and Alec MacGil­lis con­trib­uted to this re­port.


“It’s not like you’re lock­ing down one build­ing,” says Vir­ginia Tech Po­lice Chief Wen­dell Flinchum.


Vir­ginia State Po­lice Su­per­in­ten­dent W. Steven Fla­herty says he wel­comes an in­quiry.


Vir­ginia Tech Pres­i­dent Charles W. Ste­ger mon­i­tored the un­fold­ing events from Bur­russ Hall.

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