“Good afternoon, Mr. Steger,” the families’ attorney, Robert Hall, said as Virginia Tech’s President Charles W. Steger slipped into the wooden box.
After Seung Hui Cho killed 32 people and injured at least 17 on April 16, 2007, most of the victims’ families accepted a settlement that prohibited them from suing the university or the state. The Petersons and Prydes refused, creating a schism in a small community born of bloodshed and bound by anger and grief.
But by the time the lawsuit reached trial in early March — just weeks shy of the massacre’s fifth anniversary, it was no longer theirs alone. Other families, many of whom had come to regret accepting the state’s settlement, were also watching, some from the courtroom’s gallery. They, too, were haunted by critical questions: Why didn’t the university issue an earlier warning of a possible gunman on campus after two students were found shot in a dorm room? Why hadn’t Steger ever apologized for what he once called “a tragedy . . . of monumental proportions”?
During two hours of questioning, Steger explained that officials believed that the gunman had fled campus after the first shooting. “Given what we knew at the time,” he said, “we believe we did the best we could.”
Eventually, Hall had one question left for him: “Is there anything you want to say to these two families on the deaths of their daughters because they had no warning?”
Before Steger could utter a word, an attorney for the state offered a response: Objection.
A family’s compass
In a basement storage closet in Centreville, 14 boxes sit stacked, labeled “Erin’s clothes,” “Erin’s shoes,” “Erin’s toiletries.”
After her daughter died, Celeste Peterson would sit next to them, her nose pressed to the small openings on the sides, seeking the smell of her only child. Over the years, the scent has faded, but the boxes remain, unopened.
“People don’t understand. Erin was our compass,” Peterson says. “She kept us going in the right direction. Without her, we are just spinning.”
Peterson was almost 30 when her husband, Grafton, suggested that they have a child. She says she prayed on it, decided to leave it in God’s hands and weeks later discovered that she was pregnant.
“I believe that God specially designed her for us, because she was perfect for us,” Celeste Peterson says, sitting in the family’s home one recent evening. “God knew exactly what it was we needed in our lives.”
To her father, Erin was the girl who would sneak out of bed to watch ESPN with him and, later, the teen who could give him a look from the basketball court that conveyed everything she was thinking.
“That was my buddy, my best friend,” he says.
To her mother, Erin was the young woman who wanted to make the world better, who once stormed into her parent’s room after watching a documentary, demanding to know Abraham Lincoln’s motivation for freeing the slaves.
When the Westfield High School graduate left for Virginia Tech, her parents asked that she call home every night — not for her sake, but for theirs. And the 18-year-old did, without fail.
The last time mother and daughter talked was the night before the shooting. Their parting words were the same as usual.
“I love you,” Celeste said.
“I love you, too,” Erin replied. “Talk to you tomorrow.”
With the massacre’s first anniversary looming in the spring of 2008, injured survivors and families of the 32 dead wrestled with a decision: Should they settle and forgo any future right to sue?
The offer presented by the state and university included payouts of $100,000 to each decedent’s estate; reimbursements for medical and mental-health care for the survivors; and access to a trove of written records related to “the Tragedy,” as it was called throughout the proposal.
They had until April 7 to decide.
At home in Middletown, N.J., Harry and Karen Pryde fumed over the deadline, which fell nine days before the first anniversary of the death of their 23-year-old daughter.
“Everyone was really raw,” Karen Pryde says now. “We were just destroyed. It was rotten timing, very unfair. And then we were being pressured to sign this piece of paper.”
Months earlier, Andrew Goddard, whose 21-year-old son, Colin, had survived four of Cho’s gunshots, began to put the survivors in touch with one another. Joe Samaha, whose daughter Reema was killed in the same intermediate French class as Erin Peterson, did the same for the families of the dead.
“We needed to connect with other people who’d been through the same experience,” Goddard says. “The families wanted to talk and share information.”
As the settlement deadline approached, the family networks lit up, mostly with one message: Accept the offer. The pressure was coming from the attorneys handling the settlement, the families say, and from within their own ranks. There was fear that the state might withdraw the offer if not enough people agreed to the terms.
“Families of the deceased were told: ‘If you don’t sign the settlement, families of the injured won’t get any money for medical bills,’ ” Goddard says. “And we were told families of the deceased wouldn’t get money for funerals and all that stuff if we didn’t sign.”
“Frankly, I was disgusted with the way the settlement was handled,” says Lori Haas, whose daughter Emily was shot in the head but survived. “People were being told by their attorney, ‘This is the best offer you’re going to get. Accept it and exert pressure on other families who might not accept the settlement.’ I got calls saying: ‘Lori, accept the settlement — you have to accept.’ But I couldn’t. That was Emily’s decision.”
Her daughter eventually signed the settlement offer, as did 19 other injured survivors. Twenty-eight of the 32 families that lost loved ones also accepted. Two families skipped the settlement process entirely — a fact that has largely gone unnoticed.
That left the parents of Erin Peterson and Julia Pryde.
The Petersons had been determined from the start to pursue a wrongful-death suit — not to punish Virginia Tech, which their daughter loved, or to enrich themselves, as some accused them of doing. They say they wanted to get to truths they thought officials were withholding.
“That’s how you raise your children: to always tell the truth,” Celeste Peterson says. “I used to always tell Erin, ‘Even if you did something horrible, it will go a lot easier on you if you tell the truth.’ ”
The Prydes considered accepting the proposal but worried that their quest for information and accountability would come to an abrupt end if they signed the settlement. So they contacted Hall, the personal-injury lawyer who was representing the Petersons.
“When the Prydes and Petersons didn’t accept, it put a little space between them and the other families,” Goddard says. “There was definitely a schism.”
But they weren’t exactly shunned: The Petersons say one family that had accepted the settlement slipped them their password to read the massive online archive of the university’s April 16 documents.
As time passed and some relatives became increasingly dissatisfied with the 2008 settlement, the legal pursuit that had once set the Prydes and Petersons apart began to pull them closer to the community of victim and survivor families. Eventually, their lawsuit became everybody’s lawsuit.
“As people continued to have unanswered questions, they started to realize that the reason those two families are doing this is to get exactly what all of us would like to have,” says Goddard, whose son now works with the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “It’s about finding out everything we could find out about that day. With a trial, people who had not had to speak under oath before would be on the stand, and it would benefit everybody.”
Revelations and relief
By the time the case finally went to trial, all of the individual defendants — including Steger — had been dismissed from the wrongful-death suit. That left the state as the lone defendant.
But Steger was still called to testify, and when the Virginia Tech president was sworn in just after noon one day in March, relatives of Tech victims were sprinkled throughout the courtroom gallery, including Uma Loganathan, whose father, G.V. Loganathan, had been Julia Pryde’s advanced hydrology professor; and Beverly Bluhm, whose son, Brian, was killed in the same classroom.
As always, Andrew Goddard was there, too: He attended all eight days of the civil trial in Montgomery County Circuit Court in Christiansburg, taking detailed notes to share with families who were following from afar.
The trial’s central question was one the families have been asking for five years: Why hadn’t Virginia Tech officials informed students that a gunman might be on the loose after two students were shot in a dormitory about 7:15 a.m.?
The first campus-wide alert about a “shooting incident” wasn’t issued until 9:26, and it didn’t mention that anybody had been killed — or that the gunman was at large. A second, more detailed e-mail was sent at 9:50, about 10 minutes after Cho chained the doors at Norris Hall, where he shot at least 47 people in 11 minutes before turning his gun on himself.
The Prydes and Petersons maintain that, with a warning, their daughters could have avoided the deadly hail of bullets. Earlier in the school year, both young women had hunkered down when an escaped prisoner killed two people near the campus and the school was put on lockdown within an hour.
“When they got warnings, they reacted,” said Hall, the attorney for the families.
On the stand, Steger repeated what he had said in the past: Virginia Tech police and officials believed that the first two killings, in West Ambler Johnston Hall, were an act of domestic violence and that the gunman had probably fled the campus. And school officials didn’t immediately issue a campus-wide alert because they first wanted to notify the families of the students shot in the dorm.
But Steger added at least one new detail to his long-held narrative about April 16: The president testified that it was Zenobia Hikes, then-vice president for student affairs, who had recommended against telling the campus community that one student was dead, another was dying and a gunman was on the loose.
University officials had not previously cited Hikes, who died in 2008, as the driving force behind the delayed and watered-down alert — an assertion reinforced by written notes from an assistant to Virginia Tech Police Chief Wendell Flinchum.
After the testimony, the Roanoke Times published a letter from a half-dozen people who worked with Hikes, “who, due to her untimely death, is no longer able to speak on her own behalf. . . . The revelation about Zenobia’s central role in this process comes as a shock to many of us who spoke with her following the tragedy,” they wrote.
In the course of the trial, the families gazed for the first time at the Glock 19 semiautomatic pistol that Cho used in the rampage. They also heard testimony revealing that Steger told a crisis communications expert that he wouldn’t apologize to the parents because that would imply that he had made mistakes on April 16.
The seven-member jury deliberated for about 31
2 hours before returning a unanimous verdict: Virginia Tech was negligent for waiting to warn students of a gunman on campus. The jurors awarded $4 million each to the Prydes and the Petersons, not knowing that state law caps the amount at $100,000 per family.
Steger was unavailable to comment for this article, according spokesman Larry Hincker. But in a letter to the Virginia Tech community, Steger expressed his disappointment with the jury’s decision: “We do not believe that evidence presented at trial warranted the verdict.”
Says Hincker: “I think sometimes it gets lost on people, the impact this trauma has had on the university, on all of us. Many of the people killed were our friends and colleagues.”
Celeste Peterson openly sobbed when the verdict was read. In the courtroom afterward, the Petersons and Prydes embraced, and Goddard thanked them “for hanging tough and not backing down” — a sentiment shared by many of the other families.
Karen Pryde exhaled. “I felt there was a weight lifted, finally,” she says. “But the trial didn’t really change anything. We’re still missing our daughter.”
A place to cry
Erin Peterson’s bedroom remains just as she left it. Flowers her mom painted by hand run along the bottom of the walls. Dried corsages and concert tickets hang on a crowded tack board. Posters display her celebrity crushes: Justin Timberlake, 50 Cent and LeBron James.
Just as she has no plans to empty the boxes in the basement that hold Erin’s dorm room belongings, Celeste Peterson, 52, says she has no intention of changing the bedroom.
“That’s just our space,” she says. “That’s just our place where we cry, where we remember her.”
Mila Tecala, a clinical social worker who testified in the trial about both families’ grief, describes the death of a child as “the death of the future.” She says she worries about the Petersons and Prydes now that the trial is over.
“The lawsuit was giving them purpose and meaning,” says Tecala, who met with the families at the recommendation of Hall, with whom she co-authored a book.
But the legal wrangling isn’t over. The state attorney general’s office has not decided whether to appeal the verdict, and Hall has filed a motion seeking to circumvent the $100,000 cap on damages, asking for $2 million per family from the state’s risk-management plan. Just this past Friday, in a separate legal case, a judge dismissed a $55,000 fine that had been imposed on Virginia Tech by the U.S. Education Department for failing to issue a timely warning to students.
Grafton Peterson, 53, says it doesn’t matter what happens in the courts next. He has accepted that the families will never get some answers — or an apology from university officials.
“They may not ever say they did wrong,” he says. “But deep down in their hearts, when they look in the mirror at themselves, they know they did a terrible thing.”
He has seen the online comments about his family and the Prydes: how they are greedy, how they are blinded by grief, how they should just let it go already.
“They talk about let it go,” he says. “Tell them to come by and take a walk upstairs and look at an empty room or go down to the basement and remember where all her stuff was or sit here eating . . .”
“And there’s no noise,” Celeste Peterson says, finishing his thought. “They can rock their grandchildren. They can plan weddings. The most elaborate thing that we were able to plan for Erin was a funeral.”
On Erin’s bed, a black long-limbed doll leans against a pillow. Celeste Peterson says it should be Erin’s stuffed bear, the one she carried with her as a child and later took to college.
“But Buster,” she says, “was buried with her.”
Research director Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.