CHRISTIANSBURG, Va. – Attorneys at a trial seeking an accounting of the deadly 2007 rampage on the Virginia Tech campus are expected to question the chief of the university's police force Wednesday to explain his actions during the first two killings on campus.
Police Chief Wendell Flinchum is among the witnesses scheduled to testify in a wrongful death lawsuit brought by the parents of two students who were among the 33 killed during the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
Flinchum's officers were the first to investigate the slayings at Ryan Clark and Emily Hilscher in a dormitory on the morning of April 16, 2007, and they concluded the students were likely the victims of a domestic dispute -- a jealous boyfriend or girlfriend. That conclusion led officials to believe the slayings were targeted and that the killer was not a threat to the campus.
As a result, a campus-wide alert about the killings was not released by university administrators for more than 2 1/2 hours, after student gunman Seung-Hui Cho had chained the doors of Norris Hall and killed 30 people in the classroom building, then himself.
Attorneys for the parents of Julia K. Pryde and Erin N. Peterson have said if the university had warned the campus earlier of a gunman on campus, others including their daughters might have survived Cho's killing spree. They are seeking $100,000 each and a full official accounting of the morning of April 16, 2007.
The state, the lone defendant in the case, acknowledged during opening statements Tuesday that errors were made, including the determination that the first two killings were domestic. They defended police and university officials, however, stating they were working with the best information available and a gunman who somehow evaded detection during the first two killings.
"What happened later that morning was unimaginable," said Peter R. Messitt, one of the attorneys representing the state.
The plaintiffs' attorneys said campus police investigating the dorm killings were inexperienced in homicide investigations and quickly jumped to the conclusion that one of the victim's boyfriends likely was responsible for the two killings. If an alert was immediately issued, they said, Cho would have been easily identified. He tracked bloody footprints from the dorm room where the killings occurred and was probably splattered with blood.
"The Virginia Tech Police Department didn't tell anyone that a gunman was loose on the campus," said Michael A. Kernbach, one of the attorneys representing the families. That left students in a "zone of danger," he said.
Attorneys for the families of Pryde and Peterson are expected to call some of the top officials who delayed issuing a campus alert, including President Charles Steger, to see what factors worked into their decision to keep students in the dark.
A jury of seven is considering the accusations in the civil trial, which has a lower standard of proof than a criminal trial. Two alternates were released from the panel Tuesday.
The parents originally sought $10 million for the deaths of Pryde and Peterson, but the damages are now capped at $100,000 for each of their parents.
A state panel that investigated the shootings concluded that officials erred in not sending an alert earlier. The lag in issuing a campus warning also brought Virginia Tech a $55,000 fine from the U.S. Education Department. The school is appealing.
The Prydes and the Petersons were the only eligible families who didn't accept their share of an $11 million state settlement.