Police in West Ambler-Johnston Hall had a theory on the morning of April 16, 2007.
The group of Virginia Tech and Blacksburg officers investigating the shootings of Emily Hilscher and resident adviser Ryan Clark believed the violence in room 4040 resulted from a domestic incident. They believed the shooter had fled campus after committing a targeted crime.
But, almost two-and-a-half hours later, shootings erupted in Norris Hall just minutes after university officials had sent an email to the campus community announcing there had been “a shooting incident” in West AJ that morning.
The theory was wrong.
Seung-Hui Cho killed Hilscher and Clark and then killed 30 people in Norris Hall later that morning. The families of Erin Peterson and Julia Pryde — two victims killed in Norris Hall — filed matching civil suits against Tech alleging that university officials should have provided the campus with an earlier and more detailed notice of the West AJ shooting. They pointed out that the university never knew the identity or whereabouts of the shooter before Cho was found in Norris Hall. Their suits — filed almost three years ago — argued that the university’s negligence led to their daughters’ deaths.
In Montgomery County Circuit Court Wednesday, a jury agreed.
On the seventh day of proceedings, the jury received instructions and heard final arguments before beginning deliberations shortly after 11:35 a.m. yesterday. Less than four hours later, they returned to the courtroom and delivered a verdict in favor of the plaintiffs.
Celeste Peterson, Erin Peterson’s mother, burst into tears and buried her head in her hands. The verdict marked the culmination of a process that started on the second anniversary of the shootings, when the suits were filed. As the fifth anniversary approaches, the two families who refused a state settlement reached their goal: Extracting truth from officials they felt were not forthright about the events of the day their daughters died.
“I was thinking about Erin, and I was thinking about how she was a person who wanted to tell the truth even when she got caught,” Celeste Peterson said of the moment she heard the verdict.
Several other victims’ family members were in the courtroom to hear the case’s outcome and support the plaintiffs. Karen Pryde, Julia Pryde’s mother, was wearing her daughter’s class ring from Tech — a lasting reminder she said she never takes off. For her family, the suits offered the opportunity to dig deeper into what happened that morning, and she hopes the other victims’ families gained some comfort from the victory.
“We kind of felt like this was really for all of the families, all of the victims and the survivors,” Karen Pryde said. “It was a small victory for them to know that the truth got out there.”