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Virginia Tech detective believed campus wasn’t at risk after first shootings

CHRISTIANSBURG, Va. — A Virginia Tech police detective who responded to the first killings on campus five years ago says she believed the slayings were isolated and other students were not at risk.

Grafton Peterson, father of the late Erin Peterson, wipes away a tear after a photo of his daughter was shown to the jury on Tuesday.

Police Cpl. Stephanie Jessup Gallemore testified in a wrongful-death civil trial that accuses Tech officials of botching their response to the first two killings, which were followed 2 1/2 hours later by the massacre of 30 students and professors on April 16, 2007.

A campus-wide alert informing students of the killings was issued as gunman Seung-Hui Cho was chaining the doors at a classroom building to continue his killing spree.

Gallemore was questioned by an attorney representing the parents of two students who were killed in the most deadly mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs are trying to show that police wrongly concluded that Ryan Clark and Emily Hilscher were killed in a dorm room in a domestic violence incident. That conclusion led officials to believe the slayings were targeted and that the killer was not a threat to the campus. They sought one of the victim’s boyfriends for questioning while Cho returned to his dorm and changed his bloody clothes.

Gallemore said she and other police officers were questioning the boyfriend when shots rang out at Norris Hall and she responded.

Under questioning from Michael A. Kernbach, an attorney for the parents, Gallemore acknowledged she had never investigated a homicide.

One of the state’s attorney, William Broaddus, asked if she believed the first two killings posed a threat to the wider campus. Gallemore said: “I believed it was a domestic and isolated event.”

Attorneys for the parents of Julia K. Pryde and Erin N. Peterson claim that if the university had warned the campus earlier of the first slayings, their daughters and others might have survived. They are seeking $100,000 each and a full official accounting of the morning of April 16, 2007.

The state, the lone defendant in the case, acknowledged during opening statements that errors were made, including the determination that the first two killings were domestic. They defended police and university officials, however, stating they were working with the best information available and a gunman who somehow evaded detection during the first two killings.

The Prydes and the Petersons were the only eligible families who didn’t accept their share of an $11 million state settlement.

The parents originally sought $10 million for the deaths of Pryde and Peterson, but the damages are now capped at $100,000 for each of their parents.

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.