Va. law school struggles after tragic shootings

Crime: On Jan. 16, a gunman entered the fledgling Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Va., and shot six people, police say, among them the school's academic leader, Dean L. Anthony Sutin.

April 07, 2002|By Nara Schoenberg | Nara Schoenberg,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

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.

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