Appalachian School of Law Shootings

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Thu, 17 Jan 2002

Dean, 2 Others Fatally Shot At Rural Virginia Law School

Fredrick Kunkle and Craig Timberg
The Washington Post

A failing student allegedly shot three people to death and wounded three others yesterday at the Appalachian School of Law, the ambitious school created five years ago to bring newcomers and a new way of life to southwest Virginia’s struggling coal-mining region.

The midday attack ended when students overpowered the gunman and held him for Buchanan County sheriff’s deputies, officials said.

The law school was founded by community leaders eager to revitalize a region decimated by the decline of the coal industry. Built in a refurbished junior high school near Grundy’s small downtown, Appalachian had begun to live up to its promise, bringing fresh faces and economic activity. One of those fresh faces was L. Anthony Sutin, a senior official in President Bill Clinton’s Justice Department who, along with his wife, Margaret Lawton, began to do exactly what the school’s founders had hoped. They both were on the faculty—Sutin was dean—and were active in the arts council, their church and civic life.

He was among those killed yesterday.

“It’s the ultimate of ironic tragedies,” said Kent Markus, Sutin’s Harvard Law School roommate and fellow Justice Department official. “Here’s a case where the victim was one of the kindest . . . people imaginable, who saw his life as giving back.”

Police said the student, Peter Odighizuwa, went to the school’s second-floor offices to discuss his academic standing with professor Dale Reuben. When the conversation ended about 1:15 p.m., Odighizuwa told Reuben to pray for him, walked down the hall to Sutin’s office and opened fire at close range with a semiautomatic handgun, police said.

The attacker then fatally shot Thomas F. Blackwell, a professor, in his office before walking downstairs to a lounge where he opened fire again, killing Angela Denise Dales, a 33-year-old student, and injuring three other students, police said. Three students pounced on the gunman and held him until help arrived.

Police said Odighizuwa is a Nigerian immigrant who was suspended from the school yesterday because of his grades. People in the remote mountain town of 1,100 described Odighizuwa, 43, as a father of four who drove taxis in Chicago before finding the law school on a Web site.

He was charged with three counts of capital murder and three weapons violations and was being held in the Buchanan County jail.

Odighizuwa was one of the newcomers welcomed by Grundy residents since the founding of the school. He held an out-of-state real estate agent’s license but was unsuccessful in finding work at any of Grundy’s realty firms, instead taking a job in a grocery store, said David Branham, 24, an agent in his family’s insurance and real estate business. Branham said Odighizuwa arrived in town about 1 1/2 years ago.

Jim Wayne Childress, a lawyer in Grundy who was one of the first to graduate from Appalachian Law, said Odighizuwa’s wife was a nurse at Buchanan General Hospital and supported the family while her husband went to school.

“He had a little bit of financial trouble,” Childress said. “The community pitched in and helped him out a bit.”

News of the shooting spread rapidly through the close-knit community.

“It’s a small town, and everybody knows each other,” said Bill Neeley, 45.

“The professors were very involved in the community,” said Neeley, who lives in town and works in the corporate office for Food City there. “I guess a good word to describe everyone is amazed and shocked by what they’ve seen today. You read and you hear about things like this, but you never expect it to happen here.”

Sutin, particularly, was well known. The promise of the law school lured him from Washington at the height of his career. “He enjoyed the idea of getting out of D.C., into a different environment,” said Cliff Sloan, a Harvard classmate who is general counsel for the Internet operations of The Washington Post and Newsweek. “And I know he felt strongly he could make a contribution.”

Sutin, a 1984 graduate of Harvard Law School, was dean and associate professor of law at Appalachian. He had worked on election law and campaign finance issues at the Hogan & Hartson law firm in the District. He worked for the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton presidential campaign in 1992. He was formerly acting assistant attorney general for the office of legislative affairs at the Department of Justice.

“Tony was an incredibly kind, exceptionally bright and intensely dedicated public servant who was committed to bettering the welfare of all Americans,” said former attorney general Janet Reno. “One of his major accomplishments was helping to bring community policing to cities and towns across the nation.”

Markus said Sutin had a passion for politics and public service but was eager to have a more direct connection with the people he was helping.

“He saw this as a much more tangible way that he could make a difference,” Markus said.

Sutin had just returned from China, where he and his wife had adopted a 14-month-old girl.

Blackwell graduated with highest honors from Duke University’s law school and practiced in Dallas before becoming a professor. He taught contracts and intellectual property. His wife also is on the school’s faculty.

Buchanan County Attorney Mickey McGlothlin called Sutin and Blackwell “two of the finest gentlemen I had ever met.” McGlothlin’s wife is on the board of the law school.

At least 18 members of the board were in Richmond yesterday to host a reception for new Gov. Mark R. Warner (D), who, until his swearing-in, was also a member of the board.

Jackie R. Briggs, a former Navy doctor and former emergency room physician from Grundy, was among the first on the scene of the shootings. He said it was clear that Sutin and Blackwell were shot at close range in their offices.

“This was a slaughter,” Briggs said.

He also said that he had treated Odighizuwa since his arrival in Grundy and that Odighizuwa had a reputation at the law school and around town as a troubled man.

“Everybody knows this guy,” Briggs said. “He is a walking time bomb.”

The shooting has left this experiment in coal country shaken, but its founders said they would move on. “We’ll go forward as we have since this school started,” said Joseph E. Wolfe, vice chairman of the board. “It’s certainly going to be something that’s going to be ingrained in the history of the school.”

Staff writers Michael D. Shear, R.H. Melton and Maria Glod and researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.

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