Monday, December 19, 2011

An Order to Fire at Kent State? Not so, Troops' Captain Insists

I finally got around to talking with Raymond Srp, the captain of Troop G of the 107th Armored Cavalry, the National Guard unit which did most of the firing at Kent State. When I asked him what he thought about Stuart Allen's finding that the Guardsmen were ordered to fire, Srp still maintained that there never was such an order and the Guard only communicated with hand signals because of all the noise at the time of the shooting.

As Srp tells it, when the shooting broke out, he had his back to his men because he was marching ahead of them trying to see what lie ahead beyond the crest of Blanket Hill. (There was nothing blocking the Guards' retreat.) His story was that the shooting was  the result of the rock throwing and that his sergeant, Myron Pryor, who was accused by Peter Davies of starting the shooting, never fired his weapon, even though he certainly appeared to be caught in the act in the famous John Darnell photograph. Srp told me that he personally checked Pryor's gun after the shootings and determined it had not been fired. The reason why, Srp claimed, was that Pryor's hand was swollen from a previous incident in which Pryor tried to demonstrate to the other soldeirs in the unit how to correctly fire a tear gas cannister. As Srp tells it, Pryor somehow screwed up and had the tear gas cannister accidentally recoil onto his hand. That, Srp claimed, made Pryor's hand swell and made it impossible for Pryor to cock his .45. Since I a not an expert on weaponry and tear gas, I could not explore that issue any further.

HISTORICAL NOTE: Srp was originally quoted in the Justice Department's summary of the FBI report as saying the Guardsmen's lives were not in danger and that it was not a shooting situation. However, after his lawyers coached him, he changed his testimony at the wrongful death and injury trial to say that the situation was becoming more dangerous.

While Srp blamed the protestors, the President's Commission on Campus Unrest concluded the killings on May 4, 1970 were "unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable."

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Kent State Shooting Developments: A Few Odds and Ends

After I wrote the article about Stuart Allen, saying he detected a second and actual order to fire (which no newspaper in the country, including the Daily Kent Stater, covered) I heard from John Mangels, the Plain Dealer's science reporter. Mangels was the author of the three front-page stories that gave rise to the calls for a new investigation. That made him, as far as I am concerned, one of the unsung heroes of May 4. He reminded me that he interviewed Captain Ron Snyder for his initial story on May 9, 2010, and that Snyder (like Captain Martin and Sergeant Matthew McManus) challenged Allen's finding, claiming the preliminary order did not sound like an order someone in the military would give. 

That had completely slipped my mind, probably because Ron "Cynanide" Snyder is not a source I ever gave much credence to. That is partially because Snyder was not even among the squad that opened fire that day and thus, was not in a position to know what really happened. His unit was on the other side of Taylor Hall when the shootings broke, and the building completely blocked his view.

Also, I still cannot get out of my head something said about Snyder after he originally told author James Michener, the Akron Beacon Journal, and a state grand jury that he confiscated a gun and brass knuckles off the body of slain student Jeffrey Miller. Snyder subsequently admitted he fabricated this claim because he wanted to make the victims seem dangerous, thereby making the shootings look justifiable. Snyder decided to come clean after the Justice Department started investigating this claim. I saw papers on Judge Frank Battisti's law clerk's desk suggesting  the Justice Department seriously considered indicting him for perjury before the original state grand jury.  

I once had a beer with the editor who directed the ABJ's coverage, and he told me: "If he told me his name was Snyder, I still would not believe him." 

Snyder, incidentally, once guest lectured to my class in criminal justice at Kent in the spring of 1973. In a case of bad timing, I only found out about it afterwards. I had played hooky that day . . . 

Another interesting but not exactly earthshattering item: A few weeks ago I received a letter from the Justice Department's Freedom of Information office in response to an appeal I made for any records showing that the Justice Department did anything when they were asked to reinvestigate the new evidence. The Department's appeals division ignored part of my request and claimed they had no records of any such requests for reinvestigation, even though Justice Department officials met with a wounded survivor, other former students, and their attorney in May 2010. The Department's position--that there never were any calls for reinvestigation, and that no records ever were kept of this meeting, sounded highly suspicious to me. 

If the Department was telling the truth, that meant that all the public calls for a new investigation were made for publicity purposes, not to get the investigation. The wounded survivor I mentioned used to repeatedly get headlines by calling for additional investigations. Should not have he have made a formal request in writing? And did he and the others already understand that the only statute that still could be used to prosecute the Guardsmen--homicide--is a state, not a federal crime? The truth is there was not anything the Justice Department could have done anyway, save perhaps ask the National Academy of Sciences to review the tape and provide a second opinion . . .  

Finally, I recently received an e-mail out of the blue from a former Colorado National Guardsmen. He sharhed that that, after watching a film about riot control just before the campuses blew up in May 1970, "we all agreed that, if faced with a riot, we would set our M-16s on rock & roll (full automatic) and mow the protestors down."

This dovetailed very closely with a story that a then Kent State student, told the FBI a year after the tragedy. The student claimed he hitched a ride from someone who told him he was one of the soldiers that fired at the students and that the troops had discussed shooting students before it actually happened. Unfortunately, the hitchhiker was only able to provide the FBI with very sketchy information about the soldier and his car. The FBI never was able to identify him, and that line of inquiry was never pursued by the attorneys who filed wrongful death claims against the Guardsmemn.

The letter at least reminded me of the mindset of many of those upholding the law--as well as many in the general public--in May 1970. The war and Kent State divided the country more deeply than any other time since the Civil War. As Time magazine reported even a year before the shootings , there was a sentiment throughout the country that when it came to the antiwar demonstrations, "enough is enough." 

That is why the case never faded away. There were quite a few people--and not just crazy radicals--who suspected the shooting was the result of a prior agreement or discussion. Quite a few people, including the surviving victims and the relatives of those killed, still want those suspicions confirmed. 

Friday, August 19, 2011

Two Guardsmen Finally Talk: Both Insist There Was No Order to Fire at Kent State

      One of the things that surprised me about last year's Cleveland Plain Dealer exposes is that not a single Guardsman reacted to the news of Stuart Allen's findings. Over the weekend I came to understand why: some of them were unaware of his conclusions, and had nothing to react to. 

      I finally managed to get the first two interviews any journalist has had with former Ohio National Guardsman. The first, that is, since the Plain Dealer reported that Allen and another audio forensic specialist, Tom Owens, concluded there was a preliminary "prepare to fire" order to fire at Kent State (and Allen said there was an actual follow-up order).  

      Last weekend I spoke with both John E. Martin, the captain of Company A, the 145th Infantry; and one of his sergeants, Matthew McManus. McManus was one of the eight Guardsmen who were indicted by the Justice Department; in his case, he fired a shotgun into the air that may or may not have caused a student's wounds. (A second Guardsman, Leon Smith, was also charged with shooting the same student.). The case against McManus was always considered to be the weakest of the eight, and a federal judge later acquitted him and his fellow indictees of depriving the victims of due process of law.

      Neither Martin nor McManus were familiar with the new findings and Martin stuck to the story he told all along: that he never gave nor heard any order to fire. McManus claimed the only order he ever heard was the one he admitted issuing long ago. After the firing had already started, McManus gave an order: “Fire over their heads”  (the Justice Department’s version, or, as he tells it, “If you have to fire, for Christ’s sake, fire over their heads.”)
      McManus also insisted that the order audio experts Stuart Allen and Tom Owens detected on the tape—“Prepare to fire,” was not an order that anyone in the military would give. After 40 years, he could not remember how a verbal order to fire should have been phrased, but he insisted “prepare to fire” was something one would only hear at a military funeral. In fact, McManus suggested that the words might have been uttered not by a Guardsman, but by a student protestor affiliated with the radical Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).

      This defense had been used once at the 1975 wrongful death and injury trial, when the Guards’ attorneys tried to pin the entire blame for the shooting on the students themselves. At one point the lawyers suggested that Charles Deegan, an ex-Marine who served in Vietnam and subsequently returned to Kent as a student, had heckled the Guard by shouting cadence and issuing fake orders for the troops to follow. Deegan denied  the claim, which I always thought was ludicrous and an act of desperation on the attorneys' part. The claim also reminded me of something else said to me by another of the Guards’ attorneys: “Let’s face it. We’re paid hatchet men.”

      Significantly, neither Martin nor McManus noticed Terry Norman on Blanket Hill. Martin said that several of his men heard a single shot prior to the main volley. McManus told me that just before shooting, he was on the far left of the Guard’s V-shaped formation (and on their far right after they turned around and fired). Before the shootings the only incident of note that he was aware of was between Major Harry Jones and a student who emerged from the crowd, threatening to throw a part of a torn-off tree branch at Jones and his communications officer. McManus said that Jones drew his pistol and told the student to stop. The shooting started shortly after that, and McManus said that that both he and Jones were “mad at the troops for firing.” McManus because, from his position, he could not see a reason to fire (although he was quick to defend his men by adding he could not see everything going on). He was also angry because he was in the line of fire and saw dirt kicking up within a few feet from where he was standing. (I had never heard that story before.) Jones, he said, was so mad he immediately and forcefully pushed the firing soldiers’ rifles in an upward position. We had known that for years. In fact, a private in McManus’ unit, Jeffrey Jones, told me years earlier that the first thing Jones demanded to know was: “Who gave you men the order to fire?”

      As an sidenote, McManus added that on the afternoon of May 3, the day before the shootings, he, another Guardsmen, and some students played euchre and touch football on the practice football field by Taylor Hall.

      McManus also felt “there is never going to be an end to” May 4 and alluded to "all the grief it brought to me,” including family turmoil he did not want to talk about. 

      McManus clearly was not close enough to see what was happening on the other side of the Guards' V-shaped formation, where Troop G of the 107th Armored Cavalry did most of the firing. If nothing else, the captain and the sergeant provided us a preview of what the National Guardsmen's defense strategy would have been had any official investigation had gone forward.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Soldiers Were Ordered to Fire at Kent State: Audio Expert's Latest Bombshell

    There has been another major bombshell in the Kent State shooting case--this one following a year of startling disclosures about what apparently happened during at the university during an anti-Vietnam War protest on May 4, 1970.

    Last year, less than a week after the 40th anniversary, Cleveland's Plain Dealer reported that two nationally renowned audio forensics experts studied a tape of the shootings and concluded there was an order "prepare to fire"  issued just six seconds before the troops actually did.

    Five months later, the paper reported that one of the experts, Stuart Allen, had continued to study the tape on his own, focusing on a commotion he heard 70 seconds before Ohio National Guardsmen killed the four students. Allen further concluded that four additional shots were fired by Terry Norman, a part-time Kent State student and later a Washington, D.C. police SWAT officer, who was carrying a concealed .38 caliber pistol.  Given that both Norman and the FBI long denied the gun had been fired, and that after initial denials Norman was ultimately discovered to have been an undercover photographer working for both the FBI and the campus police, questions were raised about whether Norman was just a loose cannon or part of the FBI's infamous COINTELPRO operation designed to "disrupt and destroy" radicals on the New Left.

    Now, Allen reports that by isolating even more sounds on the tape, he has been able to make out a second and actual order to shoot the students. Allen says he can make out these words: "Squad, fire."

     Allen's findings, of course, contradict every public statement Guard officials made and the sworn testimony of at least a dozen soldiers. At the 1975 wrongful death and injury trial every Guardsman at the scene from the senior officers to the lowest-ranking privates insisted every "shooter" individually made the decision to fire in self-defense, without receiving any orders from commanding officers.

    Allen suspects the killings may have been the culmination of "a perfect storm" of multiple coinciding events. Given all the other contributing causes, he is probably right. However, I personally doubt that the bullets Norman allegedly fired could have precipitated the Guards' volley. Even if Norman fired four times, as Allen reports, the troops did not return fire in his direction (which would have directly behind them and off to their side) . Instead, they fired directly into a crowd of protestors off to their distant right. In fact, all but one of the 77 soldiers who faced the students seemed oblivious to Norman's presence on Blanket Hill. A man with the gun was not even mentioned in virtually all of the troops' after-action reports or in their statements to the FBI. Moreover, none of the troops fired their weapons until after 70 seconds had passed. Perhaps most telling, no soldier tried to pin the blame on him at the 1975 wrongful death and injury trial, even though Norman would have made a perfect scapegoat.

    Still, Norman's behavior on May 4 remains highly suspect. In addition to the claims that he fired his gun, there was disturbing testimony--confirmed by Norman himself--that he positioned himself in between the protestors and the Guardsmen minutes before the shooting broke out and that he threw rocks at the students. Norman swore under oath that he only threw two or three rocks, but the student involved in an altercation with him, Tom Masterson,  thought the number was closer to "half dozen, a dozen." One could reasonably conclude that Norman behaved almost as if he wanted to provoke an incident between the students and the Guard.

    All of this begs the question: what can or should be done with this information? More than four decades have passed since the killings and with the exception of a few relatives of those killed, there are not that many people who want to see another prosecution of the former Guardsmen. The state of Ohio has already refused to consider further action and the Justice Department has for 16 months simply ignored the pleas of the next-of-kin who seem to believe the truth will somehow magically reveal itself if another federal grand jury investigation was held.

    The case remains where it has always been: in limbo. We are no closer to realizing anything resembling a final resolution. To date, no Guardsman has said a word publicly about Allen's conclusions.

    Attempts are now being made to determine if any taped copies of the Guardsmen's testimony or statements to the media exist, so the various officers' voice patterns can be compared to the voice that Allen says gave the order "squad, fire." If any recordings exist, it may be possible to identify the officer who gave the actual order to shoot. That person, if he is still alive, has a lot of explaining to do.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Kent State Shootings: As Another Anniversary Approaches, Kent State Does Something Right . . . While Making Another Dopey Move

Recently, when I returned to Ohio and spent half a day in Kent, I was pleasantly surprised to find the new markers for the May 4 walking tour. The markers showed visitors how the events of May 4, 1970 unfolded and acknowledged what the university could not bring it itself to say for almost 40 years: that the killings were "unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable." That was the principal conclusion of The President's Commission on Campus Unrest, and probably the most significant piece of information that today’s students and visitors to the campus should know. Previously, that conclusion only appeared on a state of Ohio plaque erected 37 years after the fact. I suspect the only reason that came about was because I wrote a column scolding the university for not previously acknowledging that no one should have been killed.

I also felt the new markers, spread out around the perimeter of Taylor Hall, were a major improvement over Kent State's official memorial, which bears only a platitude: "Inquire, learn reflect." Kudos to faculty members Laura Davis and whoever arranged for the markers to be built. The markers were mostly overlooked during last year's 40th anniversary coverage, and it was about time that the KSU faculty did something worthwhile to preserve the memory of May 4 . . .

Unfortunately, the university appears to be on the verge of committing another blunder by demonstrating that after all these years, it still does not have a very good handle on what the tragedy was all about. When I was in Kent, I saw the tentative plans for the proposed May 4 Visitors Center. Even though parts of it looked promising and well thought through, the university appears to be still ignoring the victims’ decade-long struggle for justice for those killed. I have long felt that the university was trying to negate everything the victims worked for by acting as if the issues of justice, accountability, and getting clearer answers to the central question of why the triggers were pulled, were of little or no consequence. Those issues may not have been important to the university faculty and administration, but personally I think those were the primary reasons to even remember May 4. The tragedy turned into one of the most sustained injustices in modern American history. No one was ever held accountable for the many crimes committed at Kent. 

There is also a room discussing the historical context of the killings, centering around the theme: "Kent State raised awareness about the Vietnam War." That has to be one the dopiest things anyone has ever said or written about May 4. There are professional historians on the Visitors Center committee, and one wonders why none of them pointed out that the war was so unpopular two years earlier, that President Lyndon Baines Johnson decided he could never be elected for a second term. Or that Bobby Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy competed for the Democratic presidential nomination, both basing their campaigns on their opposition to the war. Even Richard Nixon ran and won the presidency with a promise that he had a "secret plan" to end the war; which, of course, he did not.

Not only that, the historians must have completely forgotten about the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, and the huge antiwar anti-war protest in Washington, D.C. in fall of 1969, and all the previous protests on campuses. To say that Kent State “raised consciousness” about the war is to trivialize every single major historical event that preceded it. America did not need Kent State to learn about the war. It was already the front and center national issue for more than two years.

To avoid looking foolish, the university needs to go back to the drawing board. Why cannot it just say "Kent State brought the war home"? At least it has the virtue of being a fact.