|Appalachian School of Law Shootings|
Fri, 18 Jan 2002
Francis X. Clines
Townspeople looked on in shock and grief this morning as the failed law student known on campus as Peter O. was led into the Buchanan County courtroom, shuffling in chains and hiding his face from television cameras, to face murder charges in the bloodiest shooting this remote Appalachian coal town has ever suffered.
Peter Odighizuwa looked at the floor as he was accused of assaulting his colleagues at the Appalachian School of Law and murdering the 5-year-old school’s founding dean, a second faculty member and a student caught in the handgun rampage that ended after the wounding of three others.
“Section 18.3,” the clerk intoned as the rampage was translated into precise, cold subsections of the state criminal code.
A few law students listened at the back, appalled at the painful lesson in life and law unfolding before them.
An older woman wept. Cameras bored in on the lens-shy defendant.
All about him, the town tried to absorb the fact that the law school, one of the most hopeful innovations in decades in hard-pressed Grundy, had been visited by tragedy just at the moment of its greatest promise.
“Oh, Tony, my dear friend,” said Richard Mullins, the town’s combination bike shop proprietor and official law school book dealer. In his shop across from the courthouse, Mr. Mullins mourned Dean L. Anthony Sutin.
A cum laude Harvard Law School graduate and Clinton administration veteran of the Justice Department, Mr. Sutin, 42, had retreated from the limelight of Washington to pioneer an adventure in education here amid the beauty and chronic poverty of backwoods Appalachia. He was fatally shot at close range as he worked in his office.
“Tony was so good natured,” Mr. Mullins said, “he was always helping someone.” And no one received more help than Peter O., Mr. Mullins sadly emphasized, noting that the dean had accepted Mr. Odighizuwa—a troubled and increasingly abrasive figure by most accounts—back into the school after he failed his first year.
A second notice of dismissal last week, however, left Mr. Odighizuwa distraught and increasingly confrontational, students and faculty members said. The shooting followed after he arrived at the school to protest his dismissal, according to the police.
“Tony was killed just as the school could see itself achieving something,” Mr. Mullins said, noting that last year the dean won provisional accreditation for the school from the American Bar Association. This meant graduates finally had standing to take bar exams, and enrollment was already growing.
“You could sense it in town: more students arriving, more involvement by the community,” Mr. Mullins said. “We finally had something going here.” The school has a faculty of 15 and an enrollment of more than 200.
“The network was starting to take hold,” Mr. Mullins continued, and so was the rustic professor’s life sought by Dean Sutin, whose wife, Margaret M. Lawton, was also on the faculty.
In their happiness at home on Walnut Street, the couple had just adopted a daughter from China to join their Russian-born adopted son, residents noted. They wondered what would happen to the fledgling school without Mr. Sutin and without Prof. Thomas Blackwell, who was shot to death seconds after the dean.
Professor Blackwell, 41, a graduate of Duke Law School, was recruited into the Appalachian adventure and proved to be one of the more popular professors, students said. He built a life in a foothills home with his wife, Lisa, a worker at the school law library, and their three young sons.
Mr. Odighizuwa sought no less an idyllic place when he arrived here two years ago, intent on a law degree. Born in Nigeria, the 43-year-old student, a naturalized United States citizen, had his wife, Abieyuwa, and four sons with him. They soon needed charity, and Grundy residents quietly obliged, with Dean Sutin helping him get a car and a loan, according to school colleagues.
But the student’s life worsened as he struggled in class, flunked courses and then faced wife-beating charges last August. Those charges are pending.
It was clear in interviews that there were many unanswered questions about Mr. Odighizuwa, including why he chose the law school here and, most pressing, how he might have come into possession of the handgun.
“Everybody helped the man,” the mournful Mr. Mullins said. “But with Peter, life was always a matter of somebody else’s fault.”
The third person killed, Angela Denise Dales, also had high hopes at the school. Ms. Dales, 33, who was raising her 7-year-old daughter alone, first worked at the school office but then realized her dream to enroll and seek a law degree. She was shot in the neck as the gunman moved from the faculty quarter to the students’ Lions Lounge and sprayed students with a .380 semiautomatic handgun.
“We’re all devastated,” said Tom Scott, a local lawyer and close friend of Dean Sutin’s. “This is a sleepy community, but we all understand by now that this type of incident can happen anywhere in the U.S.A.”
Mr. Scott was an onlooker with other Grundy residents as Mr. Odighizuwa stood before the bar of justice at the courthouse. Then the former law student suddenly spoke up as a defendant, requesting medication and legal representation.
“Your Honor, I had a specific request,” Mr. Odighizuwa complained, trying to choose his lawyer even as he hid his face with his arrest warrant. He was assigned a different lawyer, one well versed in the homicide defense needed now by the former law student, Judge Patrick Johnson explained. He ordered Mr. Odighizuwa back to jail without bail pending a hearing in March.
A noon memorial service soon followed at the Grundy Baptist Church. Then, the half-dozen big TV-dish uplink trucks briefly monitoring the town in its tragedy began breaking camp and moving on with a phalanx of visiting reporters.
“Usually, we cover these things in big cities,” said Jordan Placie, a television technician departing for Ohio along the switchback roads leading from Appalachia.