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Police thought 1st Va. Tech shootings domestic

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CHRISTIANSBURG, Va. — Law enforcement officials and a campus safety expert on Monday defended the police conclusion on the morning of the Virginia Tech mass killings in April 2007 that the first two shootings had all the signs of domestic violence and not the work of a deranged gunman.

The witnesses testified for the state as it began its defense in a wrongful death civil trial brought by the parents of two of the student victims. The testimony is intended to bolster the claims of Virginia Tech officials that they believed the first shootings did not pose a risk to the wider campus.

The families of Julia K. Pryde and Erin N. Peterson are each seeking $100,000 and official accountability for what they say was the university's slow response to two shootings at a dormitory on the Blacksburg campus of Virginia Tech. Their lawsuit alleges their daughters and other students might have survived the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history if officials had warned the campus of the dorm shootings earlier.

Seung-Hui Cho began his April 16, 2007, campus rampage by shooting Emily Hilscher and Ryan Clark in West Ambler Johnston Hall shortly after 7 a.m. that morning. He then went to his dorm, changed his blood-stained clothing and concluded his carnage 2 ½ hours later at Norris Hall, a classroom building where he killed 30 student and faculty and them himself.

The state presented testimony from Blacksburg Police Chief Kimberley S. Crannis and two of her officers who were at the scene of the dorm shootings. They all testified that there were no signs of a forced entry to the dorm room where the two were shot, no evidence of drugs and nothing of value missing. That led them to believe the gunman knew one or both of them.

"It appeared to me at the time it was targeted at the two people and probably domestic," Blacksburg Police Capt. Bruce Bradbery said under questioning from William G. Broaddus, one of the state's attorneys.

Police say they pursued the boyfriend of Hilscher as a "person of interest." The boyfriend was stopped by police as he approached the Tech campus in his pickup truck and began questioning him as shots rang out at Norris.

Retired FBI agent James A. Wright, who has consulted on Hollywood films and has investigated hundreds of homicides, agreed with the conclusions of the police who responded to the dorm shootings.

Broaddus asked Wright if he believed the wider campus was at no risk, since the first two shootings were domestic.

"That's my opinion," Wright responded. "The mission had been accomplished."

Steven J. Healy, a campus security expert who has either commanded or held high-ranking police positions at Syracuse University and Princeton, agreed that police made "a reasonable conclusion" that the dorm killing was domestic in nature.

Under questioning by Robert T. Hall, an attorney for the parents, Healy acknowledged that the initial finding was wrong.

"It was clearly a wrong assumption," Healy said.

The day ended on a combative note when Hall asked the Virginia Tech counsel, Kay K. Heidbreder, if she had known university President Charles Steger to lie. The question drew an objection from the state and a halt to the testimony. Attorneys for the parents have suggested Steger and other Tech officials attempted to cover up their missteps on the same day the shootings occurred.

The state said it only has a few witnesses left to call and the plaintiff's attorney has one rebuttal witness. The case could go to jurors later Tuesday or early Wednesday.

A state panel that investigated the shootings concluded that officials erred in not sending an alert earlier. The lag in issuing a campus warning also brought Virginia Tech a $55,000 fine from the U.S. Education Department. The school is appealing.

The trial has cast university officials attempting to balance the safety of Tech's 35,000-plus students, faculty and workers after the first two shootings and concerns that a campus-wide alert would distress parents and perhaps cause panic on campus.

Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap.