A Tragedy Compounded
By Jim Oliphant - LegalTimes.com
June 20, 2002
A triple murder draws unlikely attention from pro-gun activists and Nigerian immigrants
Peter Odighizuwa is an accused murderer, sitting in a jail cell near Roanoke, Va. And to some watching his case, that's only the beginning of who he is and what he has become.
To them, he is also an example of the difficulties Nigerians face in assimilating to the United States. Or a reason why immigration to this country should be curtailed. Or a lesson in why it is safer for American citizens to have guns.
In trying to understand, explain, and perhaps exploit the three murders that Odighizuwa allegedly committed earlier this year at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Va., lobby groups and cultural critics have made an example of the 43-year-old Nigerian former law student. His case has become a platform for the pro-gun forces and the anti-immigration front. It also has Nigerians in this country closely examining the pressure and frustration that come hand-in-hand with the immigrant experience.
In January, Odighizuwa, after failing out of the law school for the second time, allegedly returned with a semiautomatic weapon and shot and killed the school's dean, former Justice Department official L. Anthony Sutin, a professor, and a student while wounding two others.
Last week, his lawyers asked a judge in Grundy to have Odighizuwa evaluated to determine whether he is mentally fit to stand trial. A hearing in the case is set for June 20. The request came after several weeks during which Odighizuwa refused to talk to his defense team.
The accused gunman is being held at the New River Valley Regional Jail in Dublin, Va. While there, he wrote a six-page letter to Buchanan County Judge Patrick Johnson, the judge presiding in his case, asking for new lawyers, claiming his current ones were part of a government conspiracy.
The lawyers, James Turk of Radford, Va., and Roger Groot, a law professor at Washington & Lee University, say that the letter is further evidence that Odighizuwa suffers from an "untreated, serious, and long-standing mental illness."
In his letter to the judge, Odighizuwa says he wants his case moved from Buchanan County because of concerns about "my race, ethnicity and national origin." Negative publicity makes a fair trial in Grundy impossible, he writes.
He also says his lawyers have refused to subpoena records from the FBI and CIA that would show those agencies targeted him for investigation. "This is causing me great concern of possible suppressing of evidence," he writes.
"He's a very, very disturbed mentally ill man," Turk says. "He suffers from paranoid schizophrenia."
Prosecutors have vowed to pursue the death penalty.
Groot, who was appointed to serve as Odighizuwa's death penalty counsel on the case, has another concern about his client's defense.
"Everybody has seized on this case," Groot says. "And that worries me."
When Odighizuwa allegedly went on his shooting rampage Jan. 16, the incident didn't look much different from similar horrifying events at schools across the nation.
But two things have worked to set this episode apart: Odighizuwa's nationality and the controversy over the manner in which he was apprehended.
Odighizuwa's Nigerian background has played into the hands of far-right critics of America's open immigration policy, such as Warrenton, Va.-based VDARE, which, on its Web site, says "the white West welcomes losers and misfits like Mr. Odighizuwa into its midst, pretends they've assimilated, boasts about the 'diversity' we're creating and ignores any and every indication that they don't belong here and that their presence endangers others."
Meanwhile, other Nigerian immigrants in America empathize with the alleged killer. "I feel sorry for him," says Chike Okafor, a Chicago banker who writes extensively about Nigerian issues on the Internet.
Shortly after the shootings in Grundy, Okafor wrote an essay asking whether Odighizuwa's actions meant Nigerians in America "were beginning to crack under [the] pressure" of the immigrant experience. He asked whether they were adopting their new nation's culture "where guns are the instrument of conflict resolution."
"I am not giving an excuse for what [Odighizuwa] did," Okafor said in an interview. "He should have thought twice before making his choice. If there is the ultimate penalty, that is something he will have to face."
But Okafor wonders whether Odighizuwa simply couldn't handle the strain of trying to support his family in America. Nigerian culture, he says, requires that the man be "the breadwinner" of the family, both for his wife and children in the United States and for any extended family in economically depressed Nigeria. Okafor questions whether taking classes at the law school and working a part-time job, along with the stress caused by the language barrier in Grundy, was too much for Odighizuwa, the father of four children.
"In Nigeria, when you have that kind of pressure, you have someone to lean on, you have a very strong family support system," Okafor says. "Over here, you are more an individual. Nobody comes to help you."
But in Odighizuwa's case, at least in Grundy, that may have not been true. While certainly an extreme minority in the Virginia coal mining town, he was often aided by fellow students and faculty, who allowed him to return to school after he flunked out for the first time.
Tokunbo Awoshakin, a D.C.-based Nigerian writer, says that while he, too, condemns Odighizuwa's alleged actions, the troubled student represents what "happens to people in a system where immigrants, especially Africans, are third-class citizens when they have gone to school or become naturalized citizens."
Like Okafor, Awoshakin suggests that Odighizuwa, a naturalized U.S. citizen, is part of a growing number of immigrants who can no longer cope with the pressures of being immersed in American life. And some, like Odighizuwa, may go "off the edge" without some kind of assistance or intervention.
"There are no provisions for dealing with them while they are on the downward road to becoming fruitcakes," Awoshakin says.
The gun-rights movement has adopted the tragedy in Grundy for its own purposes as well.
Soon after the shootings, allegations circulated among gun-rights supporters nationwide that the media had suppressed a key element of the story: That Odighizuwa had been apprehended by two law students with handguns.
The students, Tracy Bridges and Mikael Gross, had worked as police officers in North Carolina before moving to Grundy. Both said they ran to their cars and grabbed weapons when the shooting started on the second floor of the law school.
They, along with two other students, approached Odighizuwa in front of the law school. Bridges and Gross both told reporters that they raised their guns at Odighizuwa and he dropped his weapon, after which the group tackled and handcuffed him.
But Odighizuwa's gun, authorities say, was already empty, and other witnesses have said the alleged shooter never even saw the other students' guns before surrendering. (Bridges and Gross could not be reached for comment.)
"This is a good example of what happens often," says Patricia Gregory, a spokesperson for the National Rifle Association. "What gets the national coverage is that this nut went into a law school and killed people. But this guy was not a law-abiding gun owner, and he was apprehended by lawful gun owners. It's the NRA story."
John Lott of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in the District, says that there were more than 280 stories on the Grundy shootings during the week after the incident, but only four carried details about the law students being armed.
Lott, who studies issues involving media reporting and firearms, says the successful defensive use of guns goes frequently unreported, but says he isn't sure why. "The bottom line isn't why it's done, but the impact it has on people," Lott says. "You rarely hear about the benefits people have with guns. It colors people's views of what can be done."
Aaron Zelman, executive director of the Wisconsin-based Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, is more certain. "It's not by accident that it's not getting reported," he says. "The powers that be don't want people thinking in terms of taking the law into their own hands."
But for Kent Markus, a professor at Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio, the embrace by gun-rights activists of the Grundy shootings has made a devastating incident's irony even more profound. Markus was a close friend of Sutin, the dean who was murdered. Markus and Sutin worked together in the Justice Department in the 1990s, where Markus was charged with implementing the gun-regulating provisions of the Brady Law. Sutin, he says, "was deeply troubled by gun violence in our society.
"The gun lobby, without much sensitivity or attention, has distorted what actually happened for their own political benefits," Markus says. "I think it is a shameful exploitation of a tragedy."
SHOOTING HITS MANY LIVES
By Laurence Hammack, Kimberly O’Brien And Lindsey Nair
Roanoke Times & World News (Roanoke, VA)
January 20, 2002
Spring semester was one week old, and the Appalachian School of Law was returning to full academic life.
At a weekly coffee meeting for students and faculty, professor Thomas Blackwell chatted with first-year student Mikael Gross about practice exams.
Anthony Sutin, dean of the school, finished some research at the law library and headed back to his office.
Student Angela Dales talked with classmates during a break between classes.
Everyone at the school was busy and preoccupied with the work that lay ahead.
Everyone, that is, except Peter Odighizuwa.
Odighizuwa, described as a troubled loner unable to cope with his failure as a law student, had recently been told that he had flunked out of school. Yet Odighizuwa refused to leave, lurking around campus and complaining bitterly about how the school had treated him.
Wednesday afternoon, Odighizuwa returned to the school.
Instead of law books, he carried a .380-caliber semiautomatic handgun.
Professor Gail Kintzer was in her second-floor office about 1:15 p.m. talking with a student when she heard the first shot.
“I heard a pop, which made me stop, and a second pop, which I knew was a gunshot,” she said.
Someone - she’s not sure who - opened Kintzer’s door, and two secretaries rushed in. Melanie Lewis, Sutin’s secretary, and Donna Horn, a faculty secretary, were hysterical.
Lewis and Horn had just seen Peter Odighizuwa shoot Blackwell, two offices down the hall, Kintzer said.
Professor Wes Shinn, whose office is next to Blackwell’s, had opened his door long enough to see Lewis and Horn standing horrified in the hallway.
“He’s got a gun; he’s got a gun,” the women screamed.
Once the women got inside Kintzer’s office, they crawled under her desk.
Kintzer tried to call for help. All emergency numbers were busy, swamped by calls from others who had heard the shots.
As Horn and Lewis ran into Kintzer’s office, Shinn ducked back into his office and slammed the door. “My assumption was that he was going to go from office to office,” he said.
Shinn heard two more shots that seemed to come from farther down the hall.
He ventured out and found Blackwell still sitting behind his desk. He was slumped over in his chair and bleeding from the neck. Shinn checked for a pulse and found none.
Blackwell’s telephone was off the hook.
At the time he was shot, Blackwell was on the phone with Charlotte Varney, the secretary of his church. They were talking about an upcoming congregational meeting at Buchanan First Presbyterian Church.
Suddenly, Blackwell stopped talking.
Varney heard a sound as if someone had blown up a paper bag, then popped it. Then she heard the phone drop and what sounded like static. After that, she heard muffled voices and footsteps.
“I asked him what was going on, but he didn’t come back on the line,” she said.
After about two minutes, Varney thought she had been disconnected. So she hung up and went on an errand, figuring Blackwell would call her back if he needed to.
A half-hour passed before she learned the truth.
Meanwhile, Kintzer and Shinn had rushed down the hall to Sutin’s office. They were met by another professor who had found the dean lying face down on the floor of his office. Two powder burns - indicating that he had been shot at close range - could be seen on Sutin’s bloodstained white dress shirt. Sutin had also been shot a third time, in the side.
He was dead, too.
Downstairs, most people did not realize what had just happened.
Arun Rattan, a first-year student, had just returned from lunch at the Italian Village, a downtown eatery frequented by students. He was with Stacey Bean and her boyfriend, James Davis.
They walked into the Lions Lounge, a lobby area named for the two statues of crouched lions that stood near the entrance. About 20 students were in the lounge, sitting in sofas and chairs or passing through on the way to class.
Sensing movement behind him, Rattan glanced over his left shoulder and saw Odighizuwa standing next to him. It appeared he had just come down the stairs that led to Sutin’s office.
“I looked at him, and he just nodded his head at me,” Rattan said.
It was only after Odighizuwa walked past him that Rattan realized he had a gun. “I didn’t think it was a real gun at first,” he said.
Odighizuwa walked up to the couch where students Angela Dales, Rebecca Brown and Madeline Short were sitting.
Standing about five feet from the women, Odighizuwa opened fire, Rattan said.
“Run! Run!” panicked students yelled. Rattan fled out a side door and ran behind the library, next to the school’s main building.
Rose Hurley, director of career services, was in her first-floor office adjacent to the lounge talking to two students when they heard the shots.
One of the students, Peter Tsahiridis, got up, closed the office door and locked it. The trio huddled together, trying to figure out what to do. When the commotion in the lounge stopped, they ventured out.
In the doorway of the career services office lay Dales. Blood was pouring from her neck. Tsahiridis tried to help.
Short was lying nearby. The bullet had entered her back, ripping through her abdomen and liver.
Bean was also down, bleeding from the chest.
Brown, despite being shot in the abdomen, had been able to run to the library.
Outside, Mikael Gross was walking back from lunch with a group of friends when they heard a gunshot.
It seemed to have come from the second floor. The sound was as if something had hit tin, followed by a whizzing noise. Later, he would learn that it was the bullet that went through Sutin’s window.
But then, his focus was on the end of the building, where students were pouring out of the entrance to the Lions Lounge.
“Peter O’s got a gun! Run!” someone yelled.
Odighizuwa was known on campus simply as “Peter O” because most people could not pronounce his last name. The Nigerian immigrant spoke with a heavy accent that made him hard to understand - something that may have contributed to his sense of alienation on the campus. As students heard the news, many recalled the deep anger that Odighizuwa harbored.
“You never knew with him,” Rattan said.
Students were scattering. Third-year student Ted Besen crept along the side of the building toward Odighizuwa, who had just come outside from the lounge. Gross sprinted for his car, about 100 yards away, and retrieved a bulletproof vest and a 9 mm handgun. Back home in North Carolina, he’s an officer with the Grifton Police Department.
He ran back, gun in hand.
By then, Odighizuwa had placed his gun and a clip on a light fixture about four feet off the ground and put his hands in the air. He was yelling something unintelligible to the students, Besen said. Besen, a former Marine and Wilmington, N.C., police officer, told him to get onto the ground.
Besen had heard shots on the second floor while waiting for a class to start. He and fellow student Tracy Bridges, another former police officer, had ushered students down the back stairs to safety before Besen went to his car to get his own gun.
Now, outside the Lions Lounge, Besen was taking a punch on the jaw from Odighizuwa. As the two wrestled, third-year student Todd Ross ran up and tackled Odighizuwa in the legs, hard. All three went down.
More students had reached the scene, helping hold Odighizuwa. Bridges sat on him. Gross ran back to his car to get handcuffs.
Before he did so, he heard Odighizuwa muttering: “I had to do it. I didn’t know what else to do. I had nowhere else to go.”
Handcuffed, Odighizuwa lay outside the building while people rushed into the lounge to help the wounded. A Buchanan County sheriff’s deputy showed up and put the suspect into his car.
Ambulances were nowhere to be seen.
But inside the lounge, a rescue was unfolding.
Melissa McCall-Burton had just returned from the nearby Subway for her 1:30 p.m. class when she learned what happened. The former emergency room nurse took her medical bag from her car and ran into the lounge.
The first victim McCall-Burton saw was Dales, lying in the career services office doorway. Right after being shot, Dales had been talking, according to Besen. But as McCall-Burton worked on Dales, she went into cardiac arrest. McCall-Burton was performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation when Dr. Jack Briggs, nurse practitioner Susan Looney and registered nurse Carol Breeding arrived.
Briggs had been in his office, just a few miles down the road, when an announcement came over the speaker system: “Dr. Briggs, pick up the phone, stat!”
It was Hurley, still holed up in the career services office. She knew Briggs had a background in emergency medicine and wasn’t far away. And Briggs knew that a state police helicopter was waiting at Buchanan General Hospital to take one of his patients to Wellmont Holston Valley Medical Center in Kingsport, Tenn. He called for it to be held.
Then he rushed from his office, his nurses in tow.
In the lounge, Looney took over Dales’ care. The others checked Short and Bean.
Briggs figured that all four injured women needed blood. But he knew it would take too long for ambulances to arrive. Both Grundy ambulances were on other calls, and other units were 20 minutes away.
The women needed to go to the hospital - immediately. So some students volunteered their own vehicles.
Stephanie Mutter backed her Toyota 4-Runner to the lobby doors. Short was put inside on a table, which just hours earlier had held coffee and snacks at the student-faculty gathering. Now, the table was one of several makeshift gurneys; the leftover food was dumped onto the floor as the bleeding women were taken out, one by one.
Students Daniel Boyd and Rob Sievers, president of the student bar association, jumped into Mutter’s vehicle with Short and made sure she didn’t fall out the open back door. Others took Brown and Bean.
Every time Mutter hit a bump, Short cried out.
“We were just glad she was talking,” Mutter said.
Honking and screaming for help, Mutter pulled up to Buchanan General Hospital, a few miles from the law school. Emergency room nurses rushed to their aid.
Dales, meanwhile, was on her way to the hospital.
The Buchanan County Sheriff’s Office had called the Grundy Funeral Home, which used to run an ambulance service and still helps police during emergencies. Funeral director T.C. Mullins sent four men with a hearse. They weren’t sure whether they were going for a patient or a corpse.
Dales, still alive, was loaded into the hearse, but died shortly after reaching the hospital. Brown, Short and Bean were taken away in two state police helicopters.
“I wish we’d gotten Angela first,” Mutter thought when she heard the woman had died.
By then, Odighizuwa was locked up. By the next morning, he had been charged with three counts of capital murder and three counts of attempted capital murder. Prosecutors have said they will seek a death sentence.
Now, a man who once aspired to be a lawyer must rely on one to save his life.