Frontier Former Editor

August 30, 2007

Ultimately, it’s all about leadership and not about PR . . . . .

Filed under: crime, dumbasses, guns, old college days, public relations, sociopathy, Virginia Tech, weapons — Frontier Former Editor @ 9:28 am

 Report of the Virginia Tech Review Panel

(Chapter VII, pp 79-82) 


At this point, the police may have made an error in reaching a premature conclusion that their initial lead was a good one, or at least in conveying that impression to the Virginia Tech administration. While continuing their investigation, they did not take sufficient action to deal with what might happen if the initial lead proved false. They conveyed to the university Policy Group that they had a good lead and that the person of interest was probably not on campus.

(That is how the Policy Group understood it, according to its chair and other members who were interviewed by the panel and who presented information at one of its open hearings.)

After two people were shot dead, police needed to consider the possibility of a murderer loose on campus who did a double slaying for unknown reasons, even though a domestic disturbance was a likely possibility. The police did not urge the Policy Group to take precautions, as best can be understood from the panel’s interviews.

It was reasonable albeit wrong that the VTPD thought this double murder was most likely the result of a domestic argument , given the facts they had initially, including the knowledge that the last person known to have been with the female victim was her boyfriend who owned a gun and cared greatly for her, according to police interviews, plus the fact that she was shot with a young man in her room under the circumstances found.

There are very few murders each year on campuses— an average of about 16 across 4,000 universities and colleges, as previously noted. The only college campus mass murder in the United States in the past 40 years was the University of Texas tower sniper attack, though there have been occasional multiple murders. Based on past history, the probability of more shootings following a dormitory slaying was very low. The panel researched reports of multiple shootings on campuses for the past 40 years, and no scenario was found in which the first murder was followed by a second elsewhere on campus. (See Appendix L for a summary of the multiple criminal shootings on campus.) The VTPD had the probabilities correct, but needed to consider the low-probability side as well as the most likely situation.

Both the VTPD and the BPD immediately put their emergency response teams (ERTs) (i.e., SWAT teams) on alert and staged them at locations from which they could respond rapidly to the campus or city. They also had police on campus looking for the gunman while they pursued the boyfriend. The ERTs were staged mainly in case they had to make an arrest of the gunman or serve search warrants on the shooting suspect.


The VTPD chief and BPD chief both responded to the murder scene in minutes. Chief Flinchum of the VTPD arrived at 8:00 a.m. and Chief Crannis of the BPD arrived at 8:13 a.m. As noted above, the VTPD chief had notified the university administration of the shootings at 7:57 a.m., just before he arrived at the scene.

Once informed, the university president almost immediately convened the emergency Policy Group to decide how to respond, including how and when to notify the university community. In an interview with President Steger, members of the panel were told that the police reports to the Policy Group first described a possible “murder–suicide” and then a “domestic dispute,” and that the police had identified a suspect. After the area parking lots had been searched, the police reported the suspect probably had left the campus.

The police did not tell the Policy Group that there was a chance the gunman was loose on campus or advise the university of any immediate action that should be taken such as canceling classes or closing the university. Also, the police did not give any direction as to an emergency message to be sent to the students. The police were very busy at WAJ investigating what had happened, gathering evidence, and managing the scene. They were conveying information by phone to the Policy Group at this point. Not until 9:25 a.m. did the police have a representative sitting with the Policy Group, a police captain.

The VTPD has the authority under the Emergency Response Plan and its interpretation in practice to request that an emergency message be sent, but as related in Chapter II, the police did not have the capability to send a message themselves. That capability was in the hands of the associate vice president for University Affairs and one other official. As stated earlier, the VTPD is not a member of the Policy Group but is often invited to attend Policy Group meetings dealing with the handling of emergencies.

One of the factors prominent in the minds of the Policy Group, according to the university president and others who were present that day, was the experience gained the previous August when a convict named William Morva escaped from a nearby prison and killed a law enforcement officer and a guard at a local hospital. Police reported he might be on the VT campus. The campus administration issued an alert that a murderer was on the loose in the vicinity of the campus. Then a female employee of the bank in the Squires Student Activities Center reportedly called her mother on a cell phone, and the mother incorrectly inferred that people were being held hostage in the student center. The mother called the police, who responded with a SWAT team. News photos of the event show students rushing out of the building with their hands up while police with drawn automatic weapons and bulletproof vests were charging into the building, a potentially dangerous situation.

It was a false alarm. Morva was captured off campus, but this situation was fresh in the minds of the Policy Group as it met to decide what to do on the report of the double homicide at WAJ. It is questionable whether there was any panic among the students in the Morva incident, as some reports had it, and how dangerous that situation really was, but the Policy Group remembered it as a highly charged and dangerous situation. In the eyes of the Policy Group, including the university president, a dangerous situation had been created by their warning in that August 2006 event coupled with the subsequent spread of rumors and misinformation.

The Policy Group did not want to cause a repeat of that situation if the police had a suspect and he was thought to be off campus.

Even with the police conveying the impression to campus authorities that the probable perpetrator of the dormitory killings had left campus and with the recent past history of the “panic” caused by the alert 9 months earlier, the university Policy Group still made a questionable decision. They sent out a carefully worded alert an hour and half after they heard that there was a double homicide, which was now more than 2 hours after the event.

Vice Provost of Student Affairs David Ford presented a statement to the panel on May 21, 2007. He was a member of the university Policy Group that made the decisions on what to do after hearing about the shootings.

Shortly after 8:00 a.m. on Monday, April 16, I was informed that there had been a shooting in West Ambler Johnston hall and that President Steger was assembling the Policy Group immediately. By approximately 8:30 a.m., I and the other members of the group had arrived at the Burruss Hall Boardroom and Dr. Steger convened the meeting. I learned subsequently that as he awaited the arrival of other group members, President Steger had been in regular communication with the police, had given direction to have the governor’s office notified of the shooting, and had called the head of University Relations to his office to begin planning to activate the emergency communication systems. When he convened the meeting, President Steger informed the Policy Group that Virginia Tech police had received a call at approximately 7:20 a.m. on April 16, 2007, to investigate an incident in a residence hall room in West Ambler Johnston.

Within minutes of the call, Virginia Tech police and Virginia Tech Rescue Squad members responded to find two gunshot victims, a male and a female, inside a room in the residence hall. Information continued to be received through frequent telephone conversations with Virginia Tech police on the scene. The Policy Group was informed that the residence hall was being secured by Virginia Tech police, and students within the hall were notified and asked to remain in their rooms for their safety. We were further informed that the room containing the gunshot victims was immediately secured for evidence collection, and Virginia Tech police began questioning hall residents and identifying potential witnesses. In the preliminary stages of the investigation, it appeared to be an isolated incident, possibly domestic in nature. The Policy Group learned that Blacksburg police and Virginia state police had been notified and were also on the scene.

The Policy Group was further informed by the police that they were following up on leads concerning a person of interest in relation to the shooting. During this 30- minute period of time between 8:30 and 9:00 a.m., the Policy Group processed the factual information it had in the context of many questions we asked ourselves. For instance, what information do we release without causing a panic? We learned from the Morva incident last August that speculation and misinformation spread by individuals who do not have the facts cause panic. Do we confine the information to students in West Ambler Johnston since incident in that building? Beyond the two gunshot victims found by police, was there a possibility that another person might be involved (i.e., a shooter), and if so, where is that person, what does that person look like, and is that person armed? At that time of the morning, when thousands are in transit, what is the most effective and efficient way to convey the information to all faculty, staff, and students? If we decided to close the campus at that point, what would be the most effective process given the openness of a campus the size of Virginia Tech? How much time do we have until the next class change?

And so with the information the Policy Group had at approximately 9 a.m., we drafted and edited a communication to be released to the university community via e-mail and to be placed on the university web site. We made the best decision we could based upon the information we had at the time. Shortly before 9:30 a.m., the Virginia Tech community—faculty, staff, and students—were notified by e-mail as follows:

“A shooting incident occurred at West Ambler Johnston earlier this morning. Police are on the scene and are investigating. The university community is urged to be cautious and are asked to contact Virginia Tech Police if you observe anything suspicious or with information on the case. Contact Virginia Tech Police at 231–6411. Stay tuned to the We will post as soon as we have more information”

The Virginia Tech Emergency/Weather Line recordings were also transmitted and a broadcast telephone message was made to campus phones. The Policy Group remained in session in order to receive additional updates about the West Ambler Johnston case and to consider further actions if appropriate.

No mention was made in the initial message sent to the students and staff of a double murder, just a shooting, which might have implied firing a gun and injuries, possibly accidental, rather than two murdered. Students and faculty were advised to be alert. The message went out to e-mails and phones. Some students and faculty saw the alert before the second event but many, if not most, did not see it, nor did most in Norris Hall classes. Those who had 9:05 a.m. classes were already in them and would not have seen the message unless checking their computers, phone, or Blackberries in class. If the message had gone out earlier, between 8:00   and 8:30 a.m., more people would have received it before leaving for their 9:05 a.m. classes. If an audible alert had been sounded, even more might have tuned in to check for an emergency message.

Few anywhere on campus seemed to have acted on the initial warning messages; no classes were canceled, and there was no unusual absenteeism.

When the Norris Hall shooting started, few connected it to the first message. The university body was not put on high alert by the actions of the university administration and was largely taken by surprise by the events that followed. Warning the students, faculty, and staff might have made a difference. Putting more people on guard could have resulted in quicker recognition of a problem or suspicious activity, quicker reporting to police, and quicker response of police. Nearly everyone at Virginia Tech is adult and capable of making decisions about potentially dangerous situations to safeguard themselves. So the earlier and clearer the warning, the more chance an individual had of surviving. (my emphasis – FFE)

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