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In Appalachia, an Unlikely Setting for a Triple Murder

Crime: The close-knit community peacefully coexisted with rural law school. Slain dean was known as caring, helpful.


GRUNDY, Va. — It was an unlikely place for the two to meet, in the gritty heart of Appalachia.

L. Anthony Sutin was a high-ranking Justice Department official, a Harvard-trained constitutional scholar.

Peter Odighizuwa was a father of four and a former cabdriver from Nigeria, trying to start over.

Sutin had just taken a job as dean of the Appalachian School of Law, an ambitious project aimed at improving legal services in one of the most downtrodden areas of the South. Odighizuwa was one of his students.

Time and again, Sutin was there for him. When Odighizuwa was broke, the dean helped buy him a car and a computer and found him a job bagging groceries. When Odighizuwa flunked out of law school his first year, Sutin gave him a second chance and let him back in.

Now Sutin is dead. And Odighizuwa is in a mountainside jail, charged with murder.

"Out of all the people who tried to help him, that's who Peter killed first--execution-style," law student Chuck Scherer said. "It's bothering us all."

On Thursday, a day after police said Odighizuwa killed the dean, a law professor and a classmate in a 60-second shooting spree, a few clues emerged as to what led to the fatal collision between the student and the dean.

Court records revealed that Odighizuwa, 43, had a violent past, and classmates said he behaved erratically. He was charged in August with hitting his wife in the face and often was moody and depressed.

As he was led into the courtroom, Odighizuwa, with his head down and hands and legs shackled, yelled out: "I've been sick! I've been sick! I need help!"

Minutes later, after 12 charges had been leveled against him, prosecutors announced they would seek the death penalty.

Many people in Grundy, a coal mining town best known for its fierce high school wrestlers, have been ambivalent about the private law school, which opened five years ago in a converted junior high school. Its founders hoped to bring legal services--and a sense of hope--to a historically depressed area.

"People said it'll help bring jobs," former coal miner Fred McCracken said. "But I always thought that if you mixed up too many people in a little town, something's going to happen. It just don't slide."

Often in rural areas, locals and college folks don't mix, but for Sutin, 42, that wasn't the case.

He'd walk his dog through downtown, past the abandoned movie theater and bronze statue of a coal miner. He'd play T-ball with his son and other boys and their fathers along the Levisa River. And come Sunday, even though he was Jewish, he'd often go to church, just to be part of the community.

His wife, Margaret Lawton, who also taught at the law school, started Buchanan County's first humane society. The couple adopted two children, a little boy from Russia and within the last six months, an infant daughter from China.

They moved from Washington, where Sutin had served in the Clinton administration as an assistant attorney general under Janet Reno. He also had been a partner in a top Washington law firm and wrote many articles for legal journals.

He came to Grundy, population 1,110, fired by a sense of mission. "He gave his heart to that school," lawyer and friend Henry Keuling-Stout said. But he didn't bang his credentials over people's heads.

"Tony was educated and smart and had every reason to be snobby," said David Thompson, who works for the county. "But he was as common as anybody. And people liked that."

"Peter O," as he was known, stood out in Grundy.

Until the law school opened, "you just didn't see black people walking down the road," one resident said. About two dozen of the school's 250 students are black.

But more than that, in a place where self-reliance and tight-knit families are themes, people remember the many times the Odighizuwas needed help.

There were the clothing drives at the hospital where Odighizuwa's wife, Abieyuwa, worked, so the family's four boys would have clothes. And there were the moves from house to house because of rent problems. And several times Odighizuwa burst into faculty meetings at the law school and asked for more money, according to students.

"This guy had an explosive personality," said Jack Briggs, the county medical examiner.

Odighizuwa had enrolled at the Appalachian School of Law in September 2000, the first year Sutin was dean; he had been a professor there before that. No one seems to know where Odighizuwa went to college and school President Lu Ellsworth said he was told by police not to discuss his record.

Odighizuwa apparently flunked out at the end of the fall semester 2000, took a semester off, bagged groceries at Food City, then came back under academic probation.

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