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At Va. Tech, a Sense of Bewilderment, Sadness as Shooting Motive Remains Unclear

December 9, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
The Virginia Tech community was terrorized by another deadly shooting attack Thursday that left a police officer dead, but the response this time by the university and police was much different than the 2007 massacre on campus. Hari Sreenivasan reports.
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JEFFREY BROWN: A tragedy gripped Virginia Tech again yesterday, but this time, the response by the university and police was different.

NewsHour correspondent Hari Sreenivasan has our report.

HARI SREENIVASAN: There were still few details today about the man identified late today as 22-year-old Ross Truett Ashley, a student from nearby Radford University who shot and killed Virginia Tech police officer Deriek Crouse yesterday afternoon, then apparently took his own life.

Police would only say that the gunman worked alone and wasn’t a Virginia Tech student. They found no motive for the shooting or connection between the gunman and the victim. Officer Crouse had pulled over a driver in a parking lot on the campus near McComas Hall, Cassell Coliseum and Lane Stadium. The shooter shot Crouse at close range while he was in his vehicle.

Crouse didn’t have time to return fire. The gunman was found a short time later in another parking lot.

Police Chief Wendell Flinchum:

WENDELL FLINCHUM, Virginia Tech police chief: You have heard or you have read Officer Crouse described as a SWAT officer, and receiving awards, and those type of things.

But Deriek is more than that. Deriek was a friend to many in our department. Deriek was a husband. Deriek was a father. And Deriek was a son. And I ask that you keep Deriek’s family in your prayers and thoughts.

Police officers develop many close bonds when you work together in many stressful situations. And this — his death is tremendous loss to our department.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Heavily armed officers from local, state and federal agencies again swarmed the campus and locked it down for hours.

Today, there was a sense of bewilderment.

George Russell is a vice president emeritus for alumni relations.

GEORGE RUSSELL, Virginia Tech: Your heart sinks. It is hard to talk about it. We really were afraid that more people might be hurt. And it reminded us so much of what happened back in April 2007.

HARI SREENIVASAN: On April 16, 2007, a student named Seung-Hui Cho murdered 32 people over the course of several hours, then shot himself.

In 2007, Virginia Tech waited hours to alert its students and staff to the initial killings. Yesterday, however, the university’s elaborate alert system, devised in the wake of the massacre, was activated six minutes after the first report of gunfire.

University spokesman Larry Hincker said the system worked.

LARRY HINCKER, Virginia Tech university relations: We have text alert. We have phone mail messages. We have computer alerts that show up on the computer. We have electronic signs in our classrooms.

Indeed, we have just shy of 500 of them around the campus community. We have blast email. And then also they automatically go to our Twitter and to our Facebook accounts. And so there are a series of communications channels that simply flood the airwaves.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Coincidentally, as events unfolded on the campus, many of Tech’s top officials were in Washington yesterday, 250 miles to the northeast. They were contesting a $55,000 federal fine levied against the university for its slow response in 2007. There are still lawsuits pending from families of those slain then.

Stephanie Voshell is a graduate student in biology. She was at Tech in 2007, and knows the difference firsthand.

STEPHANIE VOSHELL, Virginia Tech: I think, since then, people are more alert. They look around their surroundings a bit more. I feel like the school is doing a great job with their alert system.

Over the summer, we also had a campus scare, but it turned out to be nothing. But, again, the alerts worked really well. People were informed.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Melissa Peebles is a freshman.

MELISSA PEEBLES, Virginia Tech: The initial first 30 minutes, I was kind of scared, but after I got all the alerts and just knew that they were taking care of it very well, I wasn’t worried at all.

When I came here, my family and I talked about it, but we were not worried at all, because things like this, shootings, occur and, like, suicides happen everywhere. It is just that because of April 16, 2007, that it is such a big deal here.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Once the all-clear sounded yesterday, some students gathered last night at a memorial built for the victims of the 2007 killing spree.

MAN: The fear, the nervousness of, where is this going to go next?

MAN: Like, this has happened not once, but twice to a school, that really just — it doesn’t — doesn’t deserve to happen to us.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Virginia Tech police chief Wendell Flinchum was on the scene in 2007. Yesterday, he was in Northern Virginia when the call came.

WENDELL FLINCHUM: I’m not sure I have words to describe how it felt and the emotions that I went through when I was told. I was talking with Gene (ph) by telephone when he was on the scene, and incredulous, I guess. It just is very difficult to describe.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The haunting specter of that cold April day looms in Blacksburg.

Larry Hincker:

LARRY HINCKER: It’s obvious the reason why you are all here is because this is a wanton, random act of violence on the campus with the name Virginia Tech.

I don’t believe you would be here if that was otherwise the case. And we’re are all here because of an angry young man who had easy access to violent killing weapons four years ago. I don’t believe that I feel any less safe here than I would in any place, any other campus in the country. It is unfortunate that — that there — that this is not an uncommon occurrence in this country.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Today was to be the first day of exams in Blacksburg, but finals have been delayed until tomorrow.

The sprawling campus in the quiet mountains of Southwest Virginia, scene of such pain then and now, was largely empty. A memorial is scheduled this evening to remember Officer Deriek Crouse. The 39-year-old Army veteran was a father of five. He joined the Tech police force six months after the 2007 killings.