|Appalachian School of Law Shootings|
Sat, 19 Jan 2002
Area officer helps wrestle law school gunman to ground
It wasn’t until Tracy Bridges saw his fellow students grieving at the tiny law school in Virginia that he stopped being a cop and became one of the victims.
“After all that had happened, we went outside and I saw the students in the lobby,” he said. “I knew their faces. It kind of kicked in that I’m just a student here as well.”
Bridges is a reserve Buncombe County sheriff’s deputy and a third-year law student at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Va., where Peter Odighizuwa was accused of killing three people and wounding three others on Wednesday, just moments after he was dismissed from the school for failing grades.
The day started like any other for the 25-year-old Marshall native, including having lunch with friend Ted Besen of Wilmington. Both cops and North Carolina residents, the men quickly developed a close friendship during their time at the school.
They met for lunch that day then had to rush to make their 1:30 p.m. class. Bridges, anxious to be on time, parked his truck in a faculty spot in front of the building.
He had just opened his book in class when he heard three muffled pops. Several more pops echoed down the hall, closer this time. Then Bridges heard a scream.
Bridges and Besen ran into the hallway and saw a professor. “Peter’s in the building shooting,” the professor shouted.
Bridges ran back into the classroom. “Get out,” he ordered the students. The two men shepherded the students away from danger, down a back stairwell and out of the building.
Bridges and Besen then ran around to the front of the building. They saw Peter Odighizuwa, 43, clutching a handgun. Bridges instantly recognized his classmate, a troubled former student who had flunked out of the 230-student law school.
Bridges remembered the handgun in his truck, parked nearby.
He reached inside and grabbed his weapon. He pointed the handgun at Odighizuwa.
“We continued to approach Peter and he turned and faced us,” Bridges said. The Marshall native shouted at Odighizuwa to drop his gun. The man did as he was ordered.
“Ted was the first one to get to him,” Bridges said. “There was a short altercation. He hit Ted in the jaw and Ted backed up and pushed him off-balance.”
The men wrestled the suspect to the ground and handcuffed him.
Bridges, a Western Carolina University graduate, downplays his life-saving actions. He credits stopping the gunman to teamwork.
“It was me and Ted both,” he said. “We were trained under the North Carolina law enforcement institution and so we kind of have an unspoken communication between each other. And we were able to work together.”
Fri, 18 Jan 2002
One of the four students who subdued a gunman at the Appalachian School of Law in Virginia on Wednesday is an N.C. native and former Charlottean.
Mikael Gross, 34, a first-year student at the small school in Grundy, Va., told The Observer he worked as a state alcohol law enforcement agent in Charlotte from 1996 until 1998 and earned a master’s degree in criminal justice at UNC Charlotte in 1997.
Two other men who helped bring the gunman under control also have worked as law enforcement officers in North Carolina - in Asheville and Wilmington, Gross said.
Gross was walking back to the law school from lunch just after 1 p.m. Wednesday with four classmates when he heard a gunshot. He yelled to the others to take cover and watched as students ran from a student lounge in the administration building.
“People were running everywhere,” Gross said. “They were jumping behind cars, running out in front of traffic, trying to get away.”
Gross ran to his car, parked about 100 yards away, without dropping the gunman from his sight, grabbed his bullet-proof vest from his trunk and a gun from under his front seat.
While the man pointed his gun at fellow students, Gross and two others ran toward him from different directions.
One of the others was Tracy Bridges, a Buncombe County sheriff’s deputy from Asheville, who also had his gun, Gross said.
When the gunman saw them, Gross said, he put his weapon down and his hands up.
The third man, Ted Besen, who has worked as a police officer in Wilmington, was not armed and ordered the gunman onto the ground. Instead, the gunman lunged at Besen, punching him in the face.
That’s when a fourth student ran up and tackled the gunman. Gross and Bridges jumped on the gunman, pulled his hands behind his back and held him as he tried to fight them off.
When the gunman was under control, Gross ran back to his car for his handcuffs. Police arrived a minute or so later, he said.
Afterward Gross and the others headed into the administration building to help those who had been shot.
“There was blood everywhere,” Gross said. “It looked like somebody had mopped the floor with blood.”
They put some of the injured onto folding tables turned into gurneys, loaded them into SUVs and drove them to the hospital.
“I let my instinct kick in and did what any good law enforcement officer would do, what any good person would do,” he said.
Gross, who graduated from Oak Ridge Military Academy in Oak Ridge in 1985 and East Carolina University in 1989, has also lived in Raleigh, Burlington and several other N.C. cities.
He worked as the director of police corps training at the N.C. Justice Academy in 1998 and 1999, he said, and the chief of police at Brevard College before heading to law school in August .
During breaks from law school, he works as a police officer in Grifton. His mother, Cecilia Wicker, lives in Charlotte.
“I was sick, I was sick. I need help.”
That was the terse explanation Peter Odighizuwa offered yesterday when reporters outside the courthouse asked him why he shot and killed three people at the Appalachian School of Law on Wednesday. Three others were wounded.
Inside Buchanan County General District Court, Odighizuwa was less vocal. He hid his face and said nothing as a court clerk read the charges against him: three counts of capital murder, three counts of attempted capital murder and six counts of using a firearm in commission of a felony.
Odighizuwa, who was wrestled to the ground by fellow students, one of whom aimed his own revolver at Odighizuwa, could face the death penalty if convicted.
The shooting rampage, which claimed the life of the law school’s dean, has rocked the town of Grundy, which until Wednesday had been known mostly for its high school’s championship wrestling squad. Now, the entire town is grieving on national television over what everyone can describe only as an act of senseless violence.
“The Oklahoma City bombing, the World Trade Center, Columbine - at the time they seemed like worlds away,” the Rev. Stan Parris said yesterday during a memorial service for the three dead. “This time the tragedy has struck home, a remote, tiny town, a place protected by mountains and family values.”
“Those who were killed were some of our finest people,” Buchanan Supervisor Ed Bunn said. “It’s on everybody’s mind.”
The man accused of the killings, 43-year-old Odighizuwa, is being held without bail. Yesterday, General District Judge Patrick Johnson appointed Radford attorney James C. Turk Jr. to represent the Nigerian-born Odighizuwa.
Odighizuwa protested briefly, saying he wanted area lawyer James Carmody to represent him. Carmody had represented Odighizuwa in August when he was charged with assault and battery against his wife.
But Carmody is not on Virginia’s short list of lawyers qualified to represent capital defendants, so Johnson appointed Turk.
In his only courtroom outburst, Odighizuwa complained loudly that he is not getting proper medical attention.
“I was supposed to see my doctor,” he said, his voice rising. “He was supposed to help me out. I need my medication.”
Bailiffs then led Odighizuwa from the courtroom. He wore shackles on his feet and handcuffs on his wrists. He hid his face behind the green court documents that stated the crimes he is accused of committing.
Those killed in Wednesday’s shooting rampage were the school’s dean, L. Anthony Sutin, 42, of Grundy; associate professor Thomas F. Blackwell, 41, of Grundy; and student Angela Denise Dales, 33, of Vansant. The wounded are Rebecca Claire Brown, 38, of Roanoke; Martha Madeline Short, 37, of Grundy; and Stacey Beans, 22, of Berea, Ky.
State police and school authorities allege that Odighizuwa, upset about being dismissed from school for poor grades, shot and killed Sutin and Blackwell in their upstairs offices, using a Jennings .380 semiautomatic pistol he had concealed beneath his trench coat. He then allegedly went downstairs and fatally shot Dales and wounded the three other students.
Police said they do not know how many shots were fired, but by the time fellow students tackled Odighizuwa, the two magazine clips he had with him were empty. Each magazine could hold eight rounds.
One of the students who subdued Odighizuwa was Tracy Bridges, a 25-year-old sheriff’s deputy from Buncombe County, N.C., who is studying to become a lawyer.
“We went to get to class after 1 o’clock, and [student] Ted Besen and other students and I were in the classroom when we heard the first three shots,” Bridges said yesterday. “It sounded kind of muffled, and a few seconds later we heard the next round of shots, and a scream.
“Me and Ted and [student] Rob Sievers went out to look. A professor ran up the stairs and said, ‘Peter [Odighizuwa] has got a gun and he’s shooting.’ I ran back and told the class to get out. They went out the back way,” Bridges said.
“We went down, too, and Peter was in the front yard. I stopped at my vehicle and got a handgun, a revolver. Ted went toward Peter, and I aimed my gun at him, and Peter tossed his gun down.
“Ted approached Peter, and Peter hit Ted in the jaw. Ted pushed him back and we all jumped on,” Bridges said.
Yesterday, the day after the killings, authorities and students who knew Odighizuwa painted a picture of a man who had hit rock bottom.
In addition to being charged with abuse last year, Odighizuwa, a naturalized U.S. citizen, had flunked out of the law school last spring, a fact he kept hidden from his wife and four young sons. His wife, who worked as a nursing aide at an area hospital, left him three months ago and moved away, taking the children with her.
Odighizuwa and his wife and children had rented a small house just outside Grundy. Trying to make ends meet, Odighizuwa tutored students and also worked other part-time jobs.
David Branham, who works at his family’s real estate and insurance business in downtown Grundy, said Odighizuwa had an out-of-state real estate license and was looking for a job at the family business, but it did not have any openings.
“When I saw him after that, I would throw up my hand and wave at him, but we weren’t boozing buddies or anything,” Branham said.
Odighizuwa found a part-time job at the Vansant Food City working as a maintenance man, the manager said. The manager, who would not give his name, said Odighizuwa worked there a few months before quitting.
Odighizuwa then went to work at Issues and Answers, a market research firm above the Vansant Food City.
Branham said that at one point, a few people, including employees at Buchanan General Hospital, took up a collection for the Odighizuwa family at Christmas. Odighizuwa’s wife worked at the hospital.
The departure of his wife, the loss of his children and the failing grades sent Odighizuwa into a well of depression, said law student Kenneth Brown, of Rougemont, N.C. “The last time I really sat and talked to him was last semester, in November. We were at a dance and he came alone. He was really down. All he was saying were negative things.”
Other students said Odighizuwa was a loner with an abrasive personality and a chip on his shoulder, convinced that faculty members had it in for him.
Odighizuwa began attending the school again last fall after Sutin agreed to give him another chance, allowing him to re-enroll. Once again, though, according to financial aid director Chris Clifton, Odighizuwa’s grades were too poor.
Last week, he was informed that he was being academically dismissed, and he was told his financial aid was being suspended Wednesday.
According to state police, as he left professor Dale Rubin’s office, Odighizuwa said, “Pray for me.” Then the shooting began.
State Sen. Leslie L. Byrne, D-Fairfax, said the shootings in Grundy point to the need for more gun control.
“A man described as a ticking time bomb was able to get a semiautomatic weapon,” Byrne told Senate colleagues yesterday.
“We’ve heard a lot about homeland security and domestic defense, but the likelihood of being injured by a gun” is far greater than the likelihood of a plane flying into an office building, she said.
But Sen. William C. Wampler Jr., R-Bristol, said now is a time to mourn, not to cast blame.
Yesterday, the town of Grundy and the students and teachers at the law school tried to find solace.
“From a human standpoint, we see no sense in this tragedy,” said Parris, the clergyman who led the memorial service attended by about 250 people. “So we find ourselves asking, ‘Why? Why does God allow these senseless acts of violence?’*”