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Campus police actions questioned

Some ask why the college wasn't locked down after two students were killed in a dorm, hours before a massacre.

April 17, 2007|Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writer

As soon as the shooting stopped, the questions began.

Why did it take more than two hours for Virginia Tech to issue a campus-wide warning to students that the first two fatal shootings had occurred? And where were the police before a gunman started walking around Norris Hall picking off students and at least one teacher with an almost casual precision?

One Virginia state law enforcement official said Monday evening that the university and its Police Department had some explaining to do. "The more facts that come out, the more questions arise," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the ongoing investigation.

Virginia Atty. Gen. Bob McDonnell said his office would probably review the case.

While expressing confidence in the Virginia Tech police and those in the town of Blacksburg, he said in an interview late Monday that "it is always going to be important to look at every level of detail in an investigation like this to see not only how it happened but whether there are any safety procedures that can be improved on in the future."

"Once the facts become known we can go back and determine what if anything could have been done differently. We just don't know at this point."

University President Charles Steger and the school's police chief, Wendell Flinchum, said they and their employees did the best they could under extremely confusing and trying circumstances. They said they would be reviewing their actions to see if mistakes were made, both in the notification of students and in the police response the shootings.

"We made the best decisions based on the information we had at the time," Steger said at an evening news conference, the second of the day in which he was peppered with questions about his school's handling of the incident.

By late Monday, another question emerged: Were the police off campus interviewing the wrong suspect when a gunman entered Norris Hall and began firing?

Campus police were still refusing to discuss a male "person of interest" that Flinchum confirmed was being interviewed off campus by his officers and Blacksburg police just before 10 a.m. The man was not a Virginia Tech student, but he knew at least one of the victims in the initial shootings at the dorm, Flinchum said.

Asked at the evening news conference if his officers were chasing the wrong suspect when the rampage started, Flinchum said: "It may be, it may not be" the case.

Perhaps the most pressing question involved what the university did to alert the students, and when. There were no public address announcements or other warnings on campus until at least two hours after gunfire had killed two students in the West Ambler Johnston dorm. An e-mail announced those shootings. By then, a gunman was launching a massacre in Norris that would ultimately kill 30 people and end only when the gunman had taken his own life.

Steger and Flinchum explained that authorities believed the dorm shootings were a domestic dispute, "an isolated incident," and that the gunman most likely had fled the campus.

Police mobilized fast after the 7:15 a.m. shootings, they said, entering the dorm and following up leads by 7:30 a.m. By 8:25, the school leadership was meeting to decide how to best notify students of the initial shooting, Steger said.

But it took another hour, until 9:26, before the first e-mails went out, notifying the students of the homicide investigation and asking them to report any suspicious activity, Steger said Monday night.

About 20 minutes later, Steger and Flinchum said, the first 911 call went out alerting police to the shootings inside Norris. They said that within minutes, officers had breached building doors that had been chained shut.

By then, Flinchum said, "the gunshots stopped." Officers arriving on scene determined that the shooter had killed himself at about 9:55 a.m.

Asked why the campus-wide alerts didn't go out earlier, Steger said police and university officials were assessing the situation and trying to figure out how to best notify all 26,000 students, plus employees and visitors. From the outset, resident advisors in West Ambler were alerted and told to warn students, and police were in the building looking for witnesses and outside the dorm trying to secure the immediate area.

Although police made some efforts to secure at least part of the campus after the dormitory killings, the question remains why the entire campus wasn't locked down.

Flinchum said even if authorities believed a gunman was loose on campus, "a lockdown doesn't just happen."

"I'm sure we'll all sit down and talk about this incident," he said, "and what we could have done better and what we did right."


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