By STEVE SZKOTAK, Associated Press
CHRISTIANSBURG, Va. (AP) — Law enforcement officials and a campus safety expert on Monday defended a police conclusion the morning of the Virginia Tech mass killings in 2007 that the initial shootings in that spree bore all the signs of domestic violence and not the work of a deranged gunman.
The witnesses testified in the state's defense in a wrongful death civil trial brought by the parents of two of the student victims. The testimony was intended to bolster the claims of Virginia Tech officials that they believed the first shootings did not pose a risk to the wider campus.
The families of Julia K. Pryde and Erin N. Peterson are seeking official accountability for what they say was the university's slow response to two initial shootings at a dormitory on the Blacksburg campus of Virginia Tech the day of the massacre. Their lawsuit against the state — the defendant in the case — alleges their daughters and other students might have survived the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history if officials had warned the campus of the dorm shootings earlier. Each family is seeking $100,000.
Seung-Hui Cho began his rampage on April 16, 2007, by shooting Emily Hilscher and Ryan Clark in a dormitory shortly after 7 a.m. that day. He then went to his own dorm, changed blood-stained clothing and concluded his carnage 2 ½ hours later at a classroom building where he killed 30 others and himself.
The state presented testimony from Blacksburg Police Chief Kimberley S. Crannis and two of her officers who were at the scene of the dorm shootings. They testified there were no signs of a forced entry to the dorm room where the two were shot, no evidence of drugs and nothing of value missing. That led them to believe the gunman knew one or both of them.
"It appeared to me at the time it was targeted at the two people and probably domestic," Blacksburg Police Capt. Bruce Bradbery said under questioning from William G. Broaddus, one of the state's attorneys.
Police say they initially pursued the boyfriend of Hilscher as a "person of interest." The boyfriend was stopped by police as he approached the Tech campus in his pickup truck and authorities began questioning him as shots rang out at the classroom building.
Retired FBI agent James A. Wright, who has consulted on Hollywood films and has investigated hundreds of homicides, agreed with the conclusions of the police who responded to the dorm shootings.
Broaddus asked Wright if he believed the wider campus was at no risk, since the first two shootings were domestic.
"That's my opinion," Wright responded. "The mission had been accomplished."
Steven J. Healy, a campus security expert who held ranking police positions at Syracuse University and Princeton, agreed that police made "a reasonable conclusion" that the dorm killing was domestic in nature.
Under questioning by an attorney for the parents, Healy acknowledged that the initial finding was wrong.
"It was clearly a wrong assumption," Healy said.
The state plans to call some more witnesses and the plaintiffs have one rebuttal witness before the case is expected to go to jurors possibly Tuesday or Wednesday.
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.
The trial has depicted university officials as attempting to balance the safety of Tech's 35,000-plus students, faculty and workers after the first two shootings and concerns that a campus-wide alert would distress parents and perhaps cause panic on campus.
Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap.
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