A Virginia Tech official on Wednesday defended the delay in alerting students to two shootings on campus hours before the massacre of 30 others, saying officials did the best they could in unprecedented circumstances.
Robert M. Byers, executive director of government relations at Virginia Tech, testified at the civil trial brought by the parents of two Tech students who were among the 33 left dead in the April 16, 2007, attack by a lone gunman who killed himself after the carnage. The wrongful death suit seeks a full accounting of events the morning of the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
Byers gave jurors a glimpse into a meeting of university officials who struggled after the first shootings with how to deliver the news to the campus without causing a panic or unduly worrying parents.
Virginia Tech police had deemed the first two shootings in a dormitory as likely domestic-related violence. One victim was found dead, the other died later.
In a testy exchange with Robert Hall, an attorney for the parents, Byers explained what went into the decision to delay a specific announcement that a deadly shooting had occurred even as police searched for a gunman.
“How can you keep students safe knowing there is a gunman on campus?” Hall asked Byers repeatedly.
Byers responded that university leaders where heeding the advice of campus police as they were searching for the killer.
“You try to do the best you can with the information you have,” Byers said.
Of the slaughter to come, he said, “This was totally unprecedented.”
Attorneys for the parents of Julia K. Pryde and Erin N. Peterson claim their daughters and others might have survived if the university had warned the campus earlier of the first slayings.
They seek $100,000 each and a full official accounting of events that day.
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 jury of seven in the civil trial will weigh the arguments under a lower standard of proof than a criminal trial.
The Prydes and the Petersons were the only eligible families who didn't accept their share of an $11 million state settlement.
The state, as the lone defendant, acknowledged in opening statements Tuesday that errors were made, including a determination that the first two killings were domestic. But lawyers for the state defended police and university officials, stating they were working with the best information available and a gunman who somehow evaded detection after the initial killings.
Byers offered the most revealing look inside the Policy Group meeting held after the first shootings. He said officials grappled with how to get word out, mindful of the safety of everyone on the sprawling campus.
“When I went into that meeting, I knew were all concerned about the safety and the security of the students,” he said.
The governor's office and the school's board of trustees were the first to be informed, about 90 minutes after the initial shootings.
Hall continuously pressed Byers on actions the officials had taken to ensure a safe campus in Blacksburg. He asked Byers about an email he sent to his assistant in Richmond with the hastily typed message: “1 dead, 1 wounded, gunman on the loose.”
About a half hour later an email was sent campus-wide with the message that a “shooting incident” had occurred at the West Ambler Johnston dormitory. It did not mention a gunman remained at large or the death of one student and the mortal wounding of another.
Hall asked Byers what students were expected to do with that information.
He responded that officials were hopeful they would be cautious and more alert to suspicious activities on campus.
The more specific email alert informing students, professors and workers of the two killed was released more than 2 1/2 hours after the first shootings. By that time, student gunman Seung-Hui Cho was chaining the doors to Norris Hall, killing 30 others and then himself.
Byers said the last, most ominous email was delayed about 15 minutes in part because of a technical problem in getting the “blast” e-mail out to the entire campus.
Hall also asked about an e-mail he sent to his assistant in Tech's administrative center about one hour before the Norris killings, advising her to lock her door.
The topic line of the e-mail read: “Lock your door!”
“Why, sir, did you ask your assistant to lock the door?” Hall asked.
Byers said he was fearful she would be inundated with reporters once the word of the first shootings got out. He added, “I was also being cautious.”
Attorneys for the plaintiffs are trying to show police botched the campus warning and also wrongly concluded that Ryan Clark and Emily Hilscher were killed in their dorm in a domestic violence incident. They argue that conclusion led officials to believe the killer was not a threat to the campus. They sought one of the victim's boyfriends for questioning while Cho returned to his dorm and changed his bloody clothes.
In earlier testimony Wednesday, Virginia Tech police Cpl. Stephanie Jessup Gallemore testified police did not view the dorm shootings as a threat to the campus. She and other police officers were questioning the boyfriend when shots rang out at Norris Hall and she responded.
Under questioning, Gallemore acknowledged she had never investigated a homicide.
The plaintiffs' attorneys said if an alert had been immediately issued, Cho would have been easily identified. They added he tracked bloody footprints from the site of the initial killings occurred and was probably splattered with blood.
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.