By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 24, 2007
RICHMOND -- The relatives of 20 students and faculty members killed during the Virginia Tech massacre met with Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) on Saturday to press their demands for a bigger role on the panel investigating the shootings and to raise concerns about how the university handled the incident.
The meeting, described by many as extremely emotional, was convened at the state Capitol so the families could push for the appointment of a liaison to Kaine's Virginia Tech Review Panel who would work with it on a daily basis.
After the meeting, Kaine said that he is committed to giving the parents "as much access to the panel as they want" but that he would not appoint a family member to the eight-member panel.
"The panel membership is going to stay as it is, but I think we heard loud and clear the families want some different ways to interact with the panel," Kaine said.
Some at the meeting said the 40 family members asked pointed questions of the governor, raising concerns about Virginia Tech officials' response to the shootings as well as the actions of school administrators in the subsequent weeks. Concerns were also raised about how the state medical examiner's office handled the release of the bodies. Family members were also upset that they couldn't get their questions answered in the weeks after the rampage.
Many of the relatives declined to speak about the meeting, but those who did focused on their loss.
"My daughter is the issue," said a tearful Celeste Peterson of Centreville, whose only child, Erin, was killed at Virginia Tech. "My child is gone. . . . We do not have our loved ones anymore. I don't have any more children. I don't have any grandchildren. I can't plan a wedding."
The meeting underscored their plans to unite as a potential political force and help guide the investigation.
Before the meeting, a consultant retained by some family members derided Virginia Tech for not doing more to prevent Seung Hui Cho's rampage. Vincent J. Bove, a security expert from New Jersey, said Virginia Tech was "negligent" for not seeing warning signs in Cho's behavior and for not locking down the campus the morning of the shootings.
Cho shot two people about 7:15 a.m. in West Ambler Johnston Hall. He resurfaced two hours later at Norris Hall, where he fired 174 rounds and killed 30 people before turning the gun on himself.
Bove, who noted that the massacre took place days before the eighth anniversary of the school shootings in Columbine, Colo., told reporters: "Virginia Tech failed these families."
"There is a killer at large, and there are not lockdown procedures?" Bove asked. "It's inexcusable. There are not answers that are acceptable except deficiency, incompetence and a lack of judgment, and those young people should have never lost their lives in Norris Hall, and these families should have never lost their children."
Kaine declined to comment, calling it a liability issue.
"That's not my focus," Kaine said. "My obligation is to try to find out what went right and what wrong and what we can do to try to improve it."
But the relatives' request to be represented on the panel has touched off controversy about an appropriate role for them.
Two weeks ago, Kaine was caught by surprise when relatives of 13 victims met in Fairfax County to issue a statement condemning the review work of the panel, which has held three public meetings.
The relatives, who have retained Vienna lawyer Thomas J. Fadoul Jr., said in the strongly worded statement that they felt "ostracized" by the panel.
Kaine had said the panel's objectivity might be compromised by including someone with an emotional connection to the shootings. The relatives, however, have said they don't think the panel will be aggressive enough in uncovering the facts about the rampage. Fadoul has said the panel has "an inherent conflict of interest" because "the state is investigating the state."
Peter Read of Annandale, whose daughter, Mary Karen, was killed, said the families want to guarantee that lessons will be learned from the deaths of their loved ones.
"From the family members' perspective, we are here because our children, our husbands, our wives, our daughters can't be here," Read said. "So we are here for them. Everything we asked for, we asked for them. They deserve the fullest possible accounting of what happened."
The Virginia Tech relatives' efforts to organize are similar to those made by family members who lost loved ones in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. They persuaded President Bush and Congress to form a commission to investigate the attacks.
Former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean (R), who chaired that commission, said the Virginia Tech relatives "need to be brought along at every step" of the Kaine panel investigation.
"It turned out the families became the wind in our sails at the 9-11 commission," Kean said. "Though we had some disagreements, it was so transparent that when the final recommendations were made, they agreed. . . . And they became the best lobbyists we had."