|Appalachian School of Law Shootings|
Thu, 17 Jan 2002
Jeffrey Gettleman, Stephanie Simon, Times Staff Writers
A student apparently irate over failing grades burst into the dean’s office with a semiautomatic pistol and killed the dean, a professor and then another student Wednesday at a small private law school amid the coal fields of Appalachia, authorities said.
Other students tackled the gunman minutes after he stalked through the tiny campus of the Appalachian School of Law where he wounded three others during the shooting spree.
State police said they were holding Peter Odighizuwa, a 43-year-old Nigerian immigrant, as the suspected gunman. He had been dismissed from the law school earlier Wednesday; other students said it was the second time that he had failed first-year classes.
“Pray for me,” Odighizuwa said to a professor right before he started shooting, according to police.
They described Odighizuwa as a loner, a Nigerian immigrant who spoke with such a strong accent that it was difficult for them to understand him.
Odighizuwa allegedly shot dean L. Anthony Sutin and professor Thomas Blackwell in their offices, then opened fire, emptying two magazines of .380 bullets in a student lounge, where his classmates were gathered over lunch.
The third fatality was identified as Angela Dales, 33, a former recruiter for the law school who had enrolled as a student last semester.
“The dean and the professor were executed . . . at point-blank range,” said Dr. Jack Briggs, the county medical examiner. “The dean had a white shirt on, and you can see the two bullet holes in his back. You could see the powder burns.”
Two of the wounded students were shot in the back, apparently as they attempted to flee the lounge, Briggs said. “It looked like a war zone,” he said. All the wounded were airlifted to hospitals in Tennessee.
Students who responded to the sound of the gunshots described a nightmarish scene in the lounge–and what seemed an interminable wait before police and paramedics arrived. Using folding coffee tables as makeshift stretchers, several students bundled the wounded into cars and drove them to the local hospital. Two other students, both former police officers, took control of the room and tried to maintain the integrity of the crime scene.
“There was a huge puddle of blood [around one victim] and a trail of blood across the floor,” said first-year student Eric Creed, who helped organize the stretcher brigade. “We were just shocked. Everyone is so shocked.”
Odighizuwa was described as a foul-tempered student who would talk back in class and kick cars when he was angry.
“Peter would snap at you for no reason–even when you tried to reach out to him,” said second-year law student Zeke Jackson.
He seemed to have struggled from the moment he arrived, an immigrant with four young children and a wife and a serious grudge.
“He always thought he was getting picked on,” said Kenneth Brown, a first-year student. “I had been told to stay away from him.”
Grundy, population just over 1,000 and sandwiched between the rolling hills of Appalachia, was in disbelief Wednesday as news crews rolled in one after the other and Virginia state troopers cordoned off the two-story brick law school with yellow police tape.
“Such a close-knit community,” said Gov. Mark Warner, a former member of the law school’s board, “will feel such a tragedy especially deeply.”
Grundy is indeed close-knit; rather than abandoning the town in the face of repeat flooding, the residents have banded together, with state and federal help, on a proposal to move Grundy to higher ground. The historic downtown is expected to relocate, and nearly the whole population will likely follow.
Coal mining long had been king here in far southwestern Virginia. But as the industry has slumped in recent years, civic leaders have been searching for new ways to stimulate development.
Amid all the town’s problems, the Appalachian School of Law became a source of immense pride–and promise.
Established five years ago in a renovated junior high, the school set forth a mission of training attorneys to serve rural Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky. Its founders hoped that the school would bring prestige to a region long stereotyped as hillbilly.
Although its students–many of them middle-aged and launching a second career–come from all over the country, locals have come to view the school as an integral part of the community and hope that its presence will spur more and more area residents to strive for higher education.
Last year the school, which has about 250 students, graduated its first class of 34.
“It was a very big deal to get the school in the first place, and then to get it accredited,” said Ed Talbott, director of the local library.
One fervent believer in that mission was the 42-year-old Sutin, a 1984 Harvard Law School graduate who came to Appalachia after serving as an assistant attorney general during the Clinton administration.
Gettleman reported from Grundy and Simon from St. Louis. Times staff writer Massie Ritsch in Los Angeles and researchers Edith Stanley in Atlanta and John Beckham in Chicago contributed to this report.