MORE than four months after a civil engineer employed by the City of Virginia Beach used two legally purchased handguns to kill 12 people and wound four others at Municipal Building 2, police there say they have still not been able to determine a motive for the massacre. And without knowing why it happened, it’s difficult to determine what city and state officials can and should do to prevent a recurrence.
“We’re still looking to determine motive,” Deputy Police Chief Patrick Gallagher told members of the City Council and grieving family members at a Sept. 24 public briefing, noting that the 40-year-old shooter was described by people who knew him as “quiet, polite, [a] nice guy and a good listener.’’
Unlike other mass shooters, he left behind no manifesto. Gallagher noted that more than 757 interviews by police and FBI agents, and a thorough examination of his social media activity, finances, and health, yielded no clues beyond a 2017 performance-improvement plan and a 2018 job evaluation which included a written reprimand from his supervisor.
But City Manager Dave Hansen said that the longstanding Public Utilities Department employee was “in good standing” and had no ongoing disciplinary issues at the time of the shooting. In a May 31 email sent to his boss that morning, he wrote: “It has been a pleasure to serve the City, but due to personal reasons I must relieve my position.”
Hours after sending this innocuous email, and after a fierce gun battle with police, the shooter and his 12 victims were dead. So something was clearly amiss. But how do public officials prevent a recurrence when they have no idea what that something was?
There was no apparent racial or gender pattern in his choice of victims, who were both black and white, male and female. Gallagher said he had no known group affiliations, no diagnosis of mental illness, and was not even taking any prescription medication at the time of the massacre. He had $20,000 in the bank and no credit card debt.
Police said there was no documented episodes of any threatening encounters with his co-workers, although the husband of one victim told reporters that his deceased wife privately expressed her fears about the shooter and another unnamed city employee who was supposed to be fired that same day.
The results of an independent investigation of the shooting by Hillard Heintze, a Chicago security firm, is expected to be released by Nov. 12 and may provide some answers. The company has already delivered a progress report, telling Virginia Beach officials that city employees complained about “a hostile work environment,” especially for African Americans, who felt they “were being treated differently” from other workers and were subject to harsher discipline than their white co-workers.
But even that explanation raises another question: If the shooter’s motive was racial animosity stemming from perceived unequal treatment at work, why did he mow down some of his fellow black employees, who would presumably be in the same boat?
In a report following the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre in which 32 students and faculty members were killed by a lone gunman, the blue-ribbon panel concluded that the shooter had exhibited mental instability since middle school and was ineligible to purchase firearms under federal law, but “no one connected all the dots.”
Virginia Beach officials still have no idea why a longstanding employee went on a homicidal rampage at his workplace. The independent investigation into the May 31st massacre should be made public as soon as it is released next month. Hopefully it will connect the dots for them.