Va. law school struggles after tragic shootings

GRUNDY, VA. — GRUNDY, Va. -- The yellow ribbons begin 5 miles outside of town. Pinned to telephone poles, traffic signs, storefronts and fast-food restaurants, they lead down a winding mountain road to the stately red-brick buildings of the Appalachian School of Law.

Two more ribbons, their bows as big as basketballs, flutter on the rustic arbor outside the student lounge, silent reminders of one of the strangest campus crimes of recent years.


On Jan. 16, a gunman entered the fledgling law school and shot six people, police say, among them the school's academic leader, Dean L. Anthony Sutin, a former senior Justice Department official who had turned his back on Washington to teach the sons and daughters of coal miners.

When the rampage was done, three people lay dead or dying, including Sutin, who was shot in an office decorated with his 4-year-old son's artwork.


And the only suspect was one of the law school's own, the student who, perhaps more than any other, had benefited from the spirit of virtue that pervaded the tight-knit campus.

When Peter Odighizuwa received failing grades in the fall of 2000, Sutin allowed him to come back and repeat his first-year classes, students say. When Odighizuwa's car broke down, the dean quietly arranged for the school's benefactors to pitch in for a new one. When Odighizuwa, a Nigerian immigrant with four young sons, couldn't pay his bills, rumors swirled that Sutin had dug into his own pocket.

Students had helped, too, giving Odighizuwa money and, in one case, spending hours poring over his class work. Townspeople had purchased Christmas presents for his children.

Now Odighizuwa, 43, is charged with three counts of capital murder, and coal miners and news anchors alike are pondering trouble in what, to many, had looked like academic paradise.

"I don't have the answers," says Danny Dales, a retired miner whose daughter, Angela, died after being shot in the neck.

"I don't even have the questions."

The mountains

The sun plays tricks on the eye high up in the hills of southwest Virginia, turning a white farmhouse into a blazing beacon and a mud-brown stream into a ribbon of jade. But when the light recedes, it leaves unpaved roads and peeling paint. Life is hard here. It has been as far back as anyone can remember.


At the turn of the last century, farmers and loggers eked out a living on a steep incline. Then came the coal mines, and with them crippling accidents, drownings and electrocutions. In 1938, 48 workers died in a single coal-dust explosion, according to a local history book, Bountiful and Beautiful. Four years later, another explosion at a mine sent waste and water pouring into nearby homes, killing seven women and children.

When the coal mines began to shut down after a boom in the '70s, hardship just took another form: double-digit unemployment.

The law school was supposed to be a solution: not just a source of lawyers, but an economic and cultural engine for a region badly in need of revival. But, from the beginning, the school faced an uphill battle.

When Joe Wolfe, a lawyer 60 miles away in Norton, first proposed a law school for the coal fields in 1994, he was greeted with a certain amount of hilarity. "We all thought he was crazy," a fellow lawyer told the Roanoke Times & World News. But support grew and, in 1996, Grundy-area officials pounced on the idea as a way to jump-start the local economy.

The private school opened its doors in 1997, with $7.6 million in government support.

Housed in an old junior high school remodeled in a manner suggestive of a deluxe hotel chain, the law school encountered the usual Catch-22s of institutional infancy, among them: It needed enough students to meet the American Bar Association's standards for provisional accreditation, but it needed accreditation in order to attract students.


Like many young schools, ASL had trouble drawing candidates with top grades and Law School Admission Test (LSAT) scores; one student at ASL said he had an LSAT score of 127, out of a possible 120 to 180.

And lack of qualifications for law school may have been a problem in Odighizuwa's case, a critic argued in the wake of the shootings. Conservative syndicated columnist Balint Vazsonyi pointed to the accused killer's age, lackluster work history, family obligations and severe academic problems in law school.

"I fail to see anything that would have signaled to any reasonable person that this student was going to succeed," he says.

But if the Appalachian School of Law took risks, it often made them pay off.

Students fanned out across the county, coaching sports, tutoring children, helping senior citizens, mapping the county in preparation for 911 emergency service. Faculty pitched in as well, with one popular campus figure, associate professor Thomas Blackwell -- a proud Texan who wore cowboy boots to class -- rounding up students to help him pick up garbage or mend a neighbor's porch.

Not everyone at ASL was a big-city liberal like Sutin, or a devout Bible Belt Christian like many of his students, but faith -- in God, or man, or both -- was an almost palpable presence on campus, fueling both volunteerism and marathon study sessions. And the results, by some measures, were stunning.


Students landed prestigious internships and clerkships. Enrollment rose to 240. The school's presentation to the ABA accreditation committee was "just dynamic," according to former committee member Sara Davies. "It was an amazing kind of thing to witness."

And, in February 2001, ASL received provisional accreditation, a vital stamp of approval for what was then a 3-year-old school.

"By golly, it was close to a miracle," Parham Williams, dean of the Chapman University School of Law in Orange, Calif., says of ASL's accreditation.

"Have you ever been down to that part of southwestern Virginia? It is really in the boonies, and anything you can put together there that meets the stringent requirements of the American Bar Association, it has to be close to a miracle."

If ASL had a miracle-worker, it was Sutin, the tall, quiet man with the cartoonishly jubilant smile.

It was Sutin who piloted ASL to provisional accreditation after an earlier effort, under another administrator, had failed. It was Sutin who used his Washington contacts to arrange high-powered internships. He stayed up late before exams to answer students' questions, returned their phone calls to his home, flipped burgers for them at a barbecue, and kept his door open at almost all times, interrupting his work to chat about everything from academics to religion.


Portrait of a dean

One student, who was on academic probation his first two semesters, recalls how nervous he was when Sutin chose him as the "wizard," or chief object of professorial interrogation, in constitutional law class.

The student flubbed a question, but Sutin just gazed at him calmly: "John, you know this."

And John realized he did.

In some ways, Sutin, 42, was a textbook liberal, a veteran of Michael Dukakis' presidential campaign and former Attorney General Janet Reno's Justice Department who kept a Ted Kennedy quote, "The dream shall never die," on the wall of his office. A dedicated do-gooder ever since high school in Bellport, Long Island, N.Y., where he graduated first in his class, Sutin had protested nuclear power in college and worked for an environmental journal at Harvard Law School.

"He was the classic guy who would see the lost kid in the grocery store and say, 'Where's your mom? Where's your dad? Are you OK?' See someone on the ski slope who fell and say, 'Are you all right?'" says his friend Kent Markus, a law professor and former chief of staff at the Democratic National Committee.


"His nature was to watch out for everyone else."

Beyond that, though, Sutin's motivations are somewhat elusive. Asked about specific inspirations and turning points in his life, Sutin's friends, students and colleagues tend to come up blank. "The guy was brilliant, but he was quick to change the subject if you were to start talking about him," says law student Rob Sievers, 25.

"He was a very humble man, one of the most humble people I've ever met."

Federal days

At the Justice Department, Sutin eventually rose to the level of acting assistant attorney general. He worked closely with Janet Reno, who considered him a friend. But ASL's mission appealed to him, friends say. And he wanted to spend more time with his wife, Margaret Lawton -- a lawyer who also was to join the faculty at ASL -- and their Russian-born adopted son, Henry, now 4. So Sutin came to ASL in 1999 as an assistant professor.

Raised in a small town, Sutin seemed at home in Grundy (population 1,175), a place where doors go unlocked, neighbors chat over the fence, and the hills are so pristine that black bears still amble into town to rummage through garbage cans.


Angela Dales

If Sutin was ASL's hero, 33-year-old Angela Dales was its walking mission statement.

Angela was her father's daughter, the girl with her nose in a book. Growing up just outside Grundy in Oakwood, Va., she was an A student and high school drum major. She got a full scholarship to Virginia Intermont College, where she co-edited the literary magazine and was named outstanding graduate by the alumni association. But, thrown into the bumpy economy of the early 1990s, she found, to her dismay, that she had few job options.

"We just thought you'd get the degree and go to work, and [you'd be] doing great," says her younger brother, Joe, 29, a chiropractor.

She worked as an office manager at a Charlottesville day care center, got pregnant, and came home to the Grundy area in 1994 as a single mother. She couldn't even get a job as a substitute teacher at her old high school, her father says. Working as a clerk at the Grundy treasurer's office and a machine parts store, she pushed on without complaint, but those who knew her best could see she wasn't happy.

"It was like she was in a rut," says her mother, Sue, 54.


"She was in a rut," her father says.

She commuted six hours round-trip to Radford to get her master's degree and doted on her daughter, Rebecca Cariens, a bouncing blond elf who is now 8 and bears a striking resemblance to her mother.

And then the Appalachian School of Law came to town. Angela applied for a job and didn't get it, but the school called her back with another offer: They wanted her to be a recruiter.

With her quick blush, infectious laugh and seemingly boundless enthusiasm for learning, she quickly became a campus favorite. The joke, second-year law student Alex Vanburen says, was that Dales was such a good recruiter that she convinced herself to go to law school.

She applied, landed a partial scholarship, and began classes this past summer, nervous but elated.

"She was becoming the role model she wanted to be for Rebecca," her brother says.


Peter Odighizuwa

Peter Odighizuwa arrived in Grundy in the spring of 2000 with his wife, his four young sons, and apparently little else. "They had nothing," says his former neighbor Shirley Trent Stanley, a retired bookkeeper. "They had mattresses on the floor."

A naturalized U.S. citizen from Nigeria, Odighizuwa had spent at least seven years driving a bus in the Portland, Ore., area before being fired in 1989, according to the Portland Oregonian newspaper. At some point he told his wife he was working for Boeing Co., says Stanley, who believes he also held a job as a cab driver.

In 1999, he graduated with a degree in mathematics from Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio.

"Some of the faculty and staff remember him as being [a] rather emotional and high-strung individual," says Central State University public relations director Jim Cleveland.

In Grundy, Odighizuwa's wife, Abieyuwa, worked as a nurse's aide at Buchanan General Hospital, took pre-nursing courses at Southwest Virginia Community College, tried her hand at gardening, and made friends with apparent ease. "Everybody here loved Abie," Stanley says.


Her husband, a bulky figure with a strong accent and an abrasive manner, was another matter. In the beginning, he seemed somewhat excited about law school, says Zeke Jackson, 40, president of the ASL Black Law Students Association. But when first semester grades started to roll in, his behavior changed, Jackson says.

"He really started to think people were out to get him, [that they] just didn't want to see him make it through law school."

Odighizuwa kept to himself, sometimes failing to respond to greetings or questions from classmates, many of whom found his behavior unnerving. He disagreed strenuously with professors in class, and made unusual accusations. At one point, Odighizuwa became convinced that people at the law school tried to harm him by blocking a road with a fallen tree.

"It had to be a lie," Jackson says. "Everybody travels that road."

Jackson says Odighizuwa failed his first-semester classes. ASL president Lucius Ellsworth declined to confirm that, citing student confidentiality, but it's clear that Odighizuwa's academic problems in the fall of 2000 were severe enough that he did not continue into the second semester.

"He just didn't understand what he was doing," says student Todd Ross, 30, a teaching assistant in one of Odighizuwa's classes, who worked with him two or three times a week, sometimes for more than an hour. "He just didn't have the capacity to grasp the concepts."


Odighizuwa did not tell his wife about his academic problems, according to Jackson. He continued to act like a law student during the spring semester, sometimes parking himself in the library while other students were in class. Student Tom Wallen, 50, viewed him as "very odd" and "volatile."

"We used to sit around and talk about how Peter's going to shoot somebody," Wallen says.

Trouble brewing

Increasingly suspicious and sensitive, Odighizuwa sent a letter to Sutin complaining that Jackson, one of his only friends on campus, was "harassing" him by sending him Black Law Students Association information. At that point, Jackson says, he decided to end the friendship.

Meanwhile, trouble was brewing at home. Odighizuwa's complaints about people harassing him, his reliance on multiple door locks and his use of cardboard to cover his bedroom windows all struck Stanley as peculiar. She also was concerned about his treatment of Abieyuwa, whom he punched in the face, bruising her eye, according to a September police report. A hearing on whether to dismiss the misdemeanor charge of assault and battery against a household member was scheduled for August of this year.

Within a few months of the police report, Abieyuwa had moved out, Stanley says. Fall grades were starting to come out and Peter, who had been allowed to repeat his first-semester classes, was again acting oddly, at one point telling Jackson his haircut was ugly, at another point, kicking Jackson's car as it stood idling in the school parking lot.


"Oh, Lord," Jackson said to himself. "It's that time of year again."

On Jan. 16

About an hour later, Anthony Sutin entertained two visitors in his upstairs office: his wife, Lawton, who often dropped by, and their newly adopted daughter, 15-month-old Clara, whom Sutin had brought back from China a few weeks before.

About 11 a.m., Odighizuwa, dropped in at the law school, paying a visit to Dale Rubin, an African-American professor he apparently trusted. "He had gotten a bad grade in my class and wanted to talk about it," Rubin says.

Odighizuwa, who, according to police, was apparently being removed from school for academic reasons, seemed distraught to Rubin, but not exceptionally so. He left after about half an hour, saying, "If you go to church, pray for me."

It was about 1:15 p.m. when students in an upstairs classroom heard a series of metallic pops, scarcely louder than a paddle smacking a wall. The noise might have gone unnoticed, had it not been followed by a woman's scream, high and disbelieving.


Blackwell, 41, one of Odighizuwa's professors, was apparently sitting at his desk when the gunman entered his office, according to Buchanan County Medical Examiner Jack Briggs. Shot multiple times in the neck, Blackwell "never got out of the chair," Briggs said.

Maybe Sutin heard the commotion down the hall, or perhaps he saw the killer enter his office, Briggs says: "The dean obviously got up, and was shot [in the side]." Sutin fell forward, struggling as he lay on the floor. The killer stepped forward, authorities say, placed a .380-caliber semiautomatic pistol directly on Sutin's back, and fired two more shots at point-blank range.

The gunman then is said to have descended to the first floor, shooting four students, including Dales.

Moments later, Odighizuwa exited the building, students say, and was wrestled to the ground by Ross, the teaching assistant, and Ted Besen, 37, a student and former Marine.

Inside, the law school lounge was smeared with blood and littered with shattered glass. Dales, although fading fast, was still able to speak when medical personnel rushed to the scene.

"Don't let me die," she whispered.


Yellow ribbons

In the aftermath of the shootings, Vazsonyi, the conservative columnist, said Sutin had erred in allowing Odighizuwa to be admitted and giving him a second chance to get a law degree.

"Not only did Sutin pay with his life -- he also put at risk the institution to which he had dedicated his life," Vazsonyi wrote.

But Ellsworth defended his school's dean, and experts discouraged finger-pointing, saying the vast majority of troubled loners do not pick up guns, and science is a long way from predicting which ones will.

Townspeople pinned up yellow ribbons to honor the dead. The surviving victims -- Stacey Beans, 22, Rebecca Brown, 38, and Martha Madeline Short, 37 -- all returned to class, with Beans saying, "We didn't want Peter to win." Students and faculty voiced only the highest praise for Sutin and Blackwell.

"They both died for the very reason that we all loved them," says Sievers, a third-year student. "And that was because their doors were always open."


Charged with three counts of capital murder, three counts of attempted murder and six counts of use of a firearm in the commission of a felony, Odighizuwa is being held without bond at the New River Valley Regional Jail in Dublin, Va. Before his arraignment, he told reporters, "I was sick, I was sick. I need help."

His lawyer, Jim Turk, says there are "significant mental issues that do need to be addressed and could become very relevant in future proceedings."

But there is a sense of resolve in Grundy as sunlight dances on the glittering surface of the Levisa River and shadows career down steep hillsides. The law school will survive and flourish, Ellsworth predicts. Applications have risen, he says, since the shootings.

And students and townspeople alike say they are more determined than ever to see the school succeed.

Nara Schoenberg is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.