Appalachian School of Law Shootings

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Fri, 18 Jan 2002

Va. Town, Law School Linked in Mourning; Grundy Residents Pay Tribute to 3 Killed in Shootings

Maria Glod and Fredrick Kunkle
The Washington Post

Thomas F. Blackwell was a hard-charging corporate lawyer known for a methodical and creative approach to his cases. But here in this tiny mountain town, he was known for singing duets with his wife in the Buchanan First Presbyterian Choir and for his fiery homemade chili at his son’s Boy Scout gatherings.

Grundy remembered Blackwell today, along with L. Anthony Sutin and Angela Denise Dales, who were all fatally shot Wednesday at the Appalachian School of Law. At memorial services and candlelight vigils and gatherings over coffee, this much became clear: Longtime residents of this old, struggling, coal-mining town and their new educated, legal-minded, high-profile neighbors at the law school are forever linked. When community leaders founded the law school in 1997 to revitalize the region, many people in Grundy were skeptical that the two cultures would mesh. Now people can’t imagine the town without the school. “When it was first announced the school was coming, there were a lot of naysayers. Now I don’t think there is a naysayer left,” said Michael Hunt, a paralegal who has been accepted into Appalachian’s fall class.

Ginger Robertson, who works at Jackson Hardware and knew Sutin and Blackwell because their wives are members of the Grundy Women’s Club, will tell you how the school opens its doors to the arts community and the women’s club when they need space for meetings and other functions. Grundy’s town manager talks about the student who helped out by researching zoning laws. County social services officials applaud the students who tutor at the teen center.

“These were super people who found a little niche in the world and decided they were going to make it better,” said Jim Wayne Childress, a graduate and former schoolteacher who now practices law.

As Grundy mourned the dead, the student arrested in the killings appeared at a hearing in the Buchanan County courthouse, just down the street from the college. Peter Odighizuwa yelled to reporters as he walked across the outdoor catwalk connecting the jail and the courthouse: “I was sick. I was sick. I need help.”

Police say Odighizuwa, who was suspended Wednesday over his grades, went to the school’s second-floor offices to discuss his academic standing with professor Dale Rubin. When the conversation ended about 1:15 p.m., Odighizuwa told Rubin to pray for him, walked down the hall to Dean Sutin’s office and opened fire at close range with a semiautomatic handgun, killing Sutin, 42, a former top Justice Department official in the Clinton administration, police said.

The attacker then fatally shot Blackwell, a professor, in his office before walking downstairs to a lounge, where he opened fire again, killing 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.

The shooting deaths caused the town to reflect on the five-year-old law school and people like Blackwell and Sutin, who gave up lucrative careers to come to this town on the West Virginia and Kentucky borders to try something new.

So Rife’s TV put a new message on the billboard outside the Main Street store: “ASL our thoughts and prayers are with you.”

Ellen Cook and Loweda Gillespie, who work at a supermarket, drove around town hanging about 40 yellow ribbons from telephone poles and light posts.

And hundreds of family members, friends and neighbors gathered in the Baptist church next to the college for a service honoring the dean, professor and student.

Several noted without irony that Sutin helped the accused killer get on his feet by securing a $ 19,000 student loan for him and raising enough money for a car, some food and clothes.

It was exactly that kind of spirit the school’s founders envisioned when they recruited Sutin and Blackwell to Grundy.

Sutin enjoyed the easy pace of life in a small town, said Lucius “Lu” F. Ellsworth, the school’s president. Sutin also liked the idea of building up a new school, especially one whose guiding principles included service to the community, Ellsworth said.

Faculty members and students alike are required to put in 25 hours of community service per term. The students have participated in 65 social programs, including programs for the elderly, conflict resolution and a humane society for animals.

Sutin and his wife, also a professor at the school, volunteered for a community arts council that brought dance, music and other cultural events to the region.

“I think he enjoyed being part of a smaller community,” Ellsworth said. “I think he liked developing an institution from the ground up.”

Students are former paralegals, insurance agents and taxi drivers. Tracy Bridges and Mikael Gross, two students who are also former police officers, helped subdue Odighizuwa until sheriff’s deputies arrived. “I thought it was a gunshot, but I wasn’t sure until students started running out yelling, ‘Peter’s got a gun,’ ” Gross said. The students then tackled the gunman.

Odighizuwa was arraigned today on three counts of capital murder, three counts of attempted murder and six firearms charges. Odighizuwa, who shuffled into court in leg shackles and covered his face with court papers, told District Judge Patrick Johnson he needs medical attention. “I was supposed to see my doctor,” Odighizuwa said. “He was supposed to help me out. I don’t have my medication.”

Johnson told sheriff’s deputies to see that Odighizuwa is given any medication he needs and appointed Radford lawyer James C. Turk Jr. to handle the case.

Odighizuwa also has a pending assault charge in connection with an incident last summer in which he allegedly punched his wife. The case was set to be dismissed in August.

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