By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 11, 2007
RICHMOND, May 10 -- Several members of the panel investigating the Virginia Tech massacre said Thursday they have concluded that law enforcement and university officials probably handled the initial response to the shootings appropriately, given the information that authorities had at the time.
During the first meeting of the Virginia Tech Review Panel, the chairman and other members said they do not want their review to second-guess the first responders to the April 16 shooting, which left 33 people dead, including the shooter, Seung Hui Cho of Fairfax County.
Instead, the panel began outlining an agenda that will probably focus more on Cho, his access to weapons and the state's mental health system than on the performances of Virginia Tech officials and campus and Blacksburg police.
"I think we know enough about the response to know it was very effective and a very successful response," said retired state police superintendent W. Gerald Massengill, the panel's chairman.
Critics of the police response, who included students and parents, questioned whether Virginia Tech officials should have shut down the campus after Cho fatally shot two students at 7:15 a.m. More than two hours later, Cho shot 30 people and himself at Norris Hall. When Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) created the panel, he said officials "owe it to the victims" to find out everything about what happened that day. He tasked the group with studying the response of state, university and local agencies.
Julia Torres Barden, a Richmond mother of three children -- none currently at Virginia Tech -- told the panelists yesterday, "I feel Tech has to explain to me what that two-hour gap is about. I deserve that simply because my children deserve that."
But Roger L. Depue, a panel member who had a 20-year career in the FBI, said, "It is not fair to be retroactive." Added another panel member, Tom Ridge, former U.S. homeland security director: "We have to put ourselves in the shoes of those who acted at the time based on what they knew at the time."
Massengill received a private briefing Wednesday night from local, state and federal law enforcement officials investigating the case. Massengill said they provided him a timeline that helped convince him that police responded as quickly as they could after the two people had been shot in West Ambler Johnston Hall.
When police got the call about the second shooting at Norris Hall, Massengill said, they were able to breach the doors, which had been chained shut, within eight minutes. Massengill called the response "remarkable" and something "all Virginians should be proud of."
The panel will still examine the response and will visit the scene of the shootings in Blacksburg on May 21. Marcus L. Martin, a panelist who is an assistant dean at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, said he wants to know whether more could have been done at the scene to try to save some of those who died.
He noted that only one victim who had been transferred to a hospital died. "What I don't know is what happened in terms of those individuals on the scene and pronunciations of death on the scene," Martin said.
The eight members appear ready to zero in on the role of the state's mental health system in Cho's rampage.
Ridge said the panel should not be "about exploiting the troubled mind or heart of a very sick young man." But he said the panel should offer recommendations for breaking down bureaucratic barriers among the courts, the school and the state as it relates to mental health information.
Ridge referred to efforts to improve communication among intelligence agencies after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"I'm really aware of the barriers before 9/11, and I think we are going to find some of those same types of barriers that restricted the information flow," he said.
Efforts to obtain more information about Cho's medical condition and the services he did or did not receive won't be easy, panel members said.
The panel had announced Tuesday that many of its interviews will be conducted in private in hopes that witnesses will be forthcoming.
Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger said Thursday that the university will conduct its own investigations into how university officials and campus police responded to the shooting scenes. Steger said in a memo to school officials that the investigations should be completed by August.
Kaine opened the meeting yesterday by charging the panel to find out all it can about Cho, 23, and how he was able to legally buy his two guns.
Panel member Diane M. Strickland, a former Circuit Court judge in Roanoke, said the group should look into possible changes in the process of requiring someone to receive mental health treatment. She also said she suspects the panel will find that the state and federal governments don't spend enough money on mental health services.
"During my time on the bench, I was constantly reminded about the [lack] of services in Virginia," Strickland said.
In the afternoon, the panel received a briefing from state police officers about Virginia laws on obtaining firearms. Several panel members said they wanted information about whether the state might need a five-day waiting period or a ban on semiautomatic weapons.