|Appalachian School of Law Shootings|
Fri, 18 Jan 2002
“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?’*”