"Oh, What a Tangled Web We Weave." Part 1: President Steger's First Press Conference - Laying Down Some Silk
This is the first of a series of postings about Virginia Tech President Charles Steger's explanations why he issued no warning to the Virginia Tech campus the morning of April 16, 2007 - a warning that two students had been shot, one fatally and one mortally, at West Ambler Johnston ("WAJ") residence hall.
The postings come from the trial record and exhibits and are offered in response to numerous inquiries we have received about our recent jury verdict, one holding the university negligent for failing to warn and holding the university accountable for the subsequent deaths of 30 students and faculty on the campus at Virginia Tech.
The shooter shot the first two students around 7:12 a.m. in a WAJ dorm room and the next 30 in second floor classrooms of Norris Hall two and one-half hours later. University President Charles Steger, who had the authority to warn the campus that a gunman was on the loose following the first two shootings, elected to sit mute and issue no warning until the later shootings broke out.
His reasons have been diffuse, contradictory, and occasionally untrue.
He didn't come to these positions alone. By last count, Virginia Tech has spent approximately $1 million following the shootings to contract with public relations agencies to help "shape the message" - a message designed to deflect attention away the consequences of the greatest failure of leadership in college and university history.
After the first two shootings, President Steger had his staff notify the Governor that "We have one dead, one wounded, gunman on the loose," but he elected to keep those facts secret from the campus community.
Later that morning, 30 more students and faculty were killed and over 20 others wounded. When the consequences of his failure to warn struck him, he embarked on a campaign to rewrite the history of that morning and put his decisions, or absence of them, in the best possible light under the circumstances. He enlisted Larry Hincker, the head of university public relations, and together they formulated a plan which they launched at the 7:40 p.m. press conference the night of the shootings.
Through this posting and a series of postings which follow, we will array for you their disquieting efforts to create an alternate version of the truth, a parallel universe in which they successfully, at least for awhile, persuaded the public and the university's Board of Visitors that they had done their "absolute best" after the first two shootings.
In this posting, subtitled "The Press Conference," you will get a flavor how, in a public relations crazed university, facts get massaged into what we call "destination truths," "truths" which have little truth associated with them, but which are sufficiently plausible to be marketed as true despite their inaccuracy.
The police were on the scene by 7:24. a.m. In dorm room 4040 at West Ambler Johnston residence hall lay two bodies, a young woman still alive, but barely, suffering a bullet wound to the top and back of her head. Her body was near the window. Lying up against the inside of the dorm room door was a male student who had been shot in the face. Before dying he had bled profusely. On the floor were two spent 9 mm shell casings, indicating the probable weapon was a semi-automatic pistol. Thirteen bloody footprints exhibiting an approximately size 10 sneaker tread headed up the hall and ended at a stairwell. On the door handle to the stairwell was a bloody thumbprint.
A Policy Group, consisting of President Steger and other administration members, was assembled to decide what and when to tell the campus of the shootings. They knew time was limited.The press, which monitored police calls, were expected to call at any time. Members of the Policy Group started to draft an alert: "Two students have been shot in West Ambler Johnston, one fatally and one has been taken to Montgomery Regional Hospital. No gun was found at the scene. Police are searching for the shooter," but this alert was never given - at least to the campus.
Shortly after the Policy Group had been convened, President Steger directed that the Governor be notified. His Chief of Staff was told: "We have one dead, one wounded, gunman on the loose." Sometime later each member of the Board of Visitors was advised: "Two students were shot this morning, one fatally."
However, when the group decided what to tell the campus, all references to a homicide and a wounding were deleted, as was a reference to there being gunman, armed and dangerous, on the loose, Instead, the campus was simply told by email that: "A shooting incident occurred at West Ambler Johnston earlier this morning. Police are on the scene and are investigating."
A link to a copy of the email follows:
At 9:42 a.m., gunshots were heard at Norris Hall, and by 9:50 a.m., the next fifty students and faculty had fallen, victims of the same shooter as the first two shot.
Eight months earlier, on August 21, 2006, an escaped prisoner who had already killed to non-students off campus was seen approaching campus or was on its periphery. Under the guidance of Kurt Krause, Vice-President of Business Affairs, the university promptly issued a warning of his sighting, and he was captured later that day just off campus without further injury, death, or incident.
On April 2, 2007, after a note was received about a bomb threat at Torgersen Hall, the building was promptly evacuated, the campus was notified of the threat and advised to stay away from the building, the area was cordoned off, and traffic re-routed. While the police concluded the threat was undoubtedly a hoax, safety dictated a "real threat" response.
On April 13, 2007, a bomb threat made against three buildings by the same note writer, a note that recited the bombs were set to go off "this coming weekend," evoked an identical response. Clearly a hoax, it had to be taken seriously. The consequences of an error in judgment were unacceptable.
As the media descended on the campus on April 16th in response to the worst massacre in the history of public education, the dominant question asked: "Was their any warning issued after the first two shootings?" A press conference was called for 7:40 p.m. That was going to be one of the earliest questions asked.
Shortly after 6:00 p.m., President Steger and Larry Hincker discussed how they were going to handle this question at the press conference. A plan was agreed upon. President Steger would read a prepared statement, then the floor would be turned over to Chief Flinchum to take questions. Flinchum had not been at the Policy Group meeting, so he wasn't privy to what the campus had been told. Steger would read his prepared statement then step aside.
Larry Hincker prepared a first draft of a statement for President Steger to read to the assembled press. While he later denied having composed the timeline of events Mr. Steger would read into the record, it was composed on his laptop and sent as an email from his laptop to his desktop, where it could be printed in multiple copies for the press corp and distributed as President Steger's statement. His denial of authorship wasn't very convincing. Nor was the text of the statement upon later review at trial.
A copy of the email with the timeline can be found at the following link. Note the 7:30 a.m. entry about a person of interest and the 9:26 a.m. entry stating that they warned of a homicide.
A link to the video of President Steger's press conference can be found here, which is posted on our Facebook page. Note how the entire press conference follows the fictitious timeline created by Mr. Hincker.
The timeline and press statement contained two major untruths, misstatements the press corps treated as true because they had no alternative. It was the only basis they had for their story.
Having advised the campus of no details about the "shooting incident" at West Ambler Johnston in the 9:26 a.m. blast email, no mention that there had been a homicide, or
a mortal wounding, or a gunman on the loose, presumably armed with a semi-automatic pistol, the Steger statement read verbatim at the press conference recited that at 9:26 a.m., "Virginia Tech community - all faculty and students - were notified by e-mail of the homicide investigation and scene at West Ambler Johnston Residence Hall."
The Steger statement answered the question on everyone's mind. Had a warning been issued after the first two shootings? Of course! The campus was notified of the homicide at WAJ and the scene there was described! That statement, obviously, wasn't true.
But Hincker and Steger didn't stop there. The press conference opening statement also asserted that as early as 7:30 a.m., the police had a person of interest whom they were pursuing. This, too, was a fabrication - at least as of 7:30 a.m. There was no person of interest until 8:30 a.m., when the boyfriend of the young woman who had been shot in WAJ was identified, and he wasn't identified until then because the female shooting victim's identity wasn't known until after 8:15 a.m., when her roommate returned from a weekend away.
A lookout for him was issued between 8:30 and 8:40 a.m., and at 9:24 a.m., he was pulled over in a traffic stop. Everything pointed towards his non-involvement. He wasn't fleeing the Tech campus, he was headed back towards it. His buddy had called to say his girlfriend had been shot. She wasn't answering her cell phone. At the traffic stop he was polite and cooperative but distressed and crying. He needed to find her. At 9:30 a.m., the police called the Policy Group to advise them: "We have him, but it's unlikely he's the shooter."
When the shooting broke out at Norris Hall, the police wished him good luck with his girlfriend, handed him his car keys, and drove off to the new crime scene. This did not deter President Steger, however, from repeating with near monotony susequently that one of the reasons they didn't warn the campus earlier was that they had a "suspect in custody who was being interrogated when the second shootings broke out."
There will be subsequent postings dedicated exclusively to the fictions that Steger and Hincker created around this "person of interest," as they sought to morph him at first into a "suspect' and then into the "perpetrator" as their needs arose. These contentions also evaporated under the glare of trial preparation.
Despite their falsity, the 7:30 a.m. non-existent "person of interest" and the 9:26 a.m. blast email, which Steger and Hincker claimed advised the campus of the homicide and scene at WAJ, took on independent lives of their own. More to follow.