By Michael D. Shear and Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) ordered an independent review yesterday of Virginia Tech's handling of Monday's massacre after 24 hours of criticism that the university waited too long to inform students and faculty of a potential danger.
Kaine's announcement came in response to a request from the school's president and board of visitors that the governor take the lead in finding a group of credible, experienced outside examiners. He said the investigation will cover actions taken Monday and questions about whether university officials were warned earlier that the shooter, Cho Seung Hui, was troubled.
As the shooting unfolded, Virginia Tech Police Chief Wendell Flinchum said his department did everything it could to keep students safe. Yesterday, Kaine's top law enforcement officials praised Flinchum, calling the university's handling of the shooting "coordinated, prompt and professional."
At the time, Kaine was returning from an aborted trade mission to Japan. In a convocation speech after he returned, Kaine referred to questions about the response as "deep and troubling." Speaking to reporters later, he said he will appoint a panel of independent law enforcement officials to examine what the university knew about Cho and how it dealt with his rampage, which killed 32.
"There will be a very thorough after-action report," Kaine pledged. "Before we talk about any policy changes, we have to get an assessment of what occurred."
Among the questions was why it took campus police more than two hours after an initial shooting at a dormitory to inform students of danger. The delay between that shooting, which killed two students, and a more devastating one two hours later in an academic building could have exposed more students and faculty to danger, critics said. Thirty people were killed in the second shooting.
New details provided yesterday might help explain the delay. Authorities said they spent much of the time between the shootings pursuing a young man -- not Cho -- who was romantically connected to one of the initial victims. Police revealed other new information yesterday, including that 9mm and .22-caliber guns had been recovered from Norris Hall, the scene of the second round of shootings, and that ballistics tests showed that the 9mm Glock had been used in both incidents.
Police also searched Cho's dorm room, looking for, among other things, "ammunition, weapons, explosives" in response to discovering a "bomb threat note . . . directed at engineering school department buildings" near the Norris shootings, according to an affidavit filed with a local court. Officials said in the document that they think Cho was the author of the threat.
Norris was "a horrific crime scene," Flinchum said yesterday. "What went on there caused tremendous chaos and panic" that have complicated police officers' ability to process the crime scene.
Personal effects were strewed in many places. Victims were found in four classrooms on the second floor and in a stairwell. Cho was found among several victims in a classroom. He had shot himself, police said.
State officials characterized the outside review as standard procedure for emergencies and compared it to state reviews conducted after Hurricane Isabel and the Washington area sniper shootings.
But after a closed-door meeting of the board of visitors that followed the afternoon convocation, university leaders recognized the intensity and magnitude of the nation's worst shooting rampage by an individual by requesting higher-level involvement from Kaine than the usual report.
Kaine, who said he would appoint the panel members within a few days, said he had several people in mind. He vowed they would find answers to some of the "natural questions" that have been raised on television programs and in headlines.
"That is the purpose for immediately commencing this review," the governor said.
Many parents of Virginia Tech students continued to question the decisions made by university administrators and police -- notably, the decision not to send out an e-mail about the first shooting until 9:26 a.m., more than two hours after the attack was reported, and not to cancel classes or shut down the campus until after the classroom shootings.
"These students had the right to know there was an incident in the morning, that there was a murder and a gunman on the loose, and for them to make a decision based on that about whether to go to class or not," said Carl Ruggiero of Stafford, whose daughter Sarah is a freshman. "That opportunity was not given to them. . . . They had absolutely no help whatsoever. These kids were sitting ducks."
Ruggiero contrasted the university's reaction to the dorm shooting with its decision in August to shut down the campus and order students to stay indoors while police searched for a man who escaped from a local jail and shot a sheriff's deputy near campus early on the first day of classes.
State and law enforcement sources said the investigation has not allowed them to fully explain some of their actions Monday, and they said they think an independent review will show their actions were proper. One official said, for example, that the decision to treat the first shooting as a domestic dispute was a common-sense policing decision that was logical at the time.
But some campus security specialists questioned whether the university might have had other reasons to delay notification during the shooting crisis.
"We can't know what was going on in their heads," said Katherine Andriole, assistant program director for Security on Campus, a national advocacy organization, "but they may have been reluctant because of their image. We urge that, as hard as it is, that they disregard their concern for image in a situation like this."
In 2005, the Virginia Crime Commission conducted an evaluation of college and university police departments. Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach), chairman of the commission, said Virginia Tech had one of the most professional and highly trained college police departments in the state. Staff writer Tim Craig contributed to this report.