A month ago, Jason Nixon lost his wife, Kate, in the city’s deadliest mass shooting.
Debbie Borato lost her only sister, Missy Langer.
Cassandra “DD” Hardy and Denise Smallwood lost their brother, Josh Hardy.
All of them simply want to know why. They want answers.
They feel as if they can’t grieve fully until they learn more about the city employee who shot 16 people — 12 fatally — inside an office building at the Municipal Center on May 31.
That’s why they’re putting pressure on the city to release every record on the shooter’s employment history. They have asked for an independent investigator to evaluate everything that led up to that day. They want to know how police responded to the event.
The city manager — and later the council — initially told them to wait for police to finish their criminal investigation amid concerns that another analysis would impede their work.
But after pressure mounted, council members decided to change course.
On Tuesday, the City Council plans to authorize an independent investigation into the shooting. The focus will be to piece together a timeline of the events and review the gunman’s employment history and his workplace interactions. Facility security, prevention of workplace violence, employee alerts and response to active shooter notifications also will be scrutinized.
Virginia Beach will pay for the study and task City Auditor Lyndon Remias with selecting the firm that will do the review; the work would be bid out. That process could take more than a month, Vice Mayor Jim Wood said.
The police chief indicated that he expects interviews to wrap up by Aug. 15, Wood said. So the council has agreed the independent review should start then.
“I understand the urgency people want and will do all in my power to ensure the process is as quick as can be,” Remias said, adding that he would pick a capable firm for the job.
Independent reviews are not always conducted after mass shootings, but they are common and often provide sweeping recommendations to improve safety, according to an analysis by The Virginian-Pilot.
Of the 17 mass shootings that resulted in at least 10 deaths since Columbine High School in 1999, all but four saw a third-party review of the tragedies, according to analysis of data from Mother Jones and news coverage.
These investigations, which are separate from the main criminal probe, look different in almost each case. Some are conducted by appointed panels while others are done by private companies or other government agencies.
But the main thrust typically stays the same: to provide clarity on what transpired, identify problems with the response and to recommend best practices for future events.
Virginia Beach’s review of the May 31 tragedy in Building 2 of the Municipal Center would be no different.
The family of Kate Nixon was the first to put pressure on Virginia Beach to allow for an external investigation. Jason Nixon has said his wife had been scared to go to work the day she died. The night before, she had told him she feared an employee who was not the gunman.
Jason Nixon encouraged his wife to take a gun with her for protection, but she declined because it was against city policy.
The next day, DeWayne Craddock, a public utilities employee, shot 16 people with a .45-caliber handgun equipped with a legally purchased silencer before police killed him after a shootout.
Three days after the shooting, Kevin Martingayle, an attorney representing the Nixon family, urged the city to release the gunman’s full employment records and any materials expressing concerns about him. The city has declined to do so.
Martingayle then asked the city to pick a law firm to investigate the incident. He said a similar review into the 2017 Charlottesville riots should be used as a model because it took place at the same time as the police’s probe. The families of Langer and Hardy have also called for a review.
The law firm of Hunton Andrews Kurth, previously called Hunton & Williams, led the independent investigation into the August 2017 riots that erupted during a white nationalist rally surrounding the removal of two Confederate statues.
Clashes between “alt-right” and counter protesters resulted in injuries and the death of one woman who was struck by a car when a white supremacist drove through a crowd. The driver, James A. Fields Jr., was sentenced Friday to life in prison after pleading guilty to 29 federal hate crimes.
The review concluded that the Charlottesville Police Department took too long to intervene when the two sides clashed and failed to protect public safety by being unprepared.
Virginia Beach’s initial reluctance for an outside review stands in sharp contrast to the response after the mass shooting at Virginia Tech.
On April 16, 2007, a senior opened fire on his classmates, killing 32 students and faculty and wounding 17 more. The gunman killed himself, and to this day, it remains the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history.
Three days later, amid widespread criticism that officials delayed crucial time in alerting the campus about the shooting, then-Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine appointed an eight-person panel to review the incident, independent from the state’s own efforts.
“In the days immediately after the shooting, I knew it was critical to seek answers to the many questions that would arise from the tragedy,” wrote Kaine, now a U.S. senator, in the report’s foreword. “I also felt that the questions should be addressed by people who possessed both the expertise and autonomy necessary to do the comprehensive review.”
In an interview, the chair of the panel, Col. Gerald Massengill, laid out how the Virginia Tech review was able to coexist with an ongoing investigation by local law enforcement.
Virginia Tech Review Panel Chairman Gerald Massengill, right, gestures during opening remarks at the panel’s first meeting. (Steve Helber/The Virginian-Pilot )
“It’s challenging, but it can be done and not interfere with the criminal investigation,” he said.
Massengill, a retired Virginia State Police superintendent, said it is important to have a clear scope for what the group is going to examine.
The Virginia Tech panel itself conducted more than 200 interviews, but Massengill knew they couldn’t talk to some witnesses before police did. He said he coordinated with officials to make sure a witness wouldn’t be spoiled by an interview with the panel. Sometimes, they were briefed on documents they couldn’t access directly.
At times, the process was like walking a tightrope, he explained. They had to get answers but couldn’t push too far. They wanted to lay out recommendations but not point fingers. And the group wanted to be transparent — it held four public meetings — but members had to be careful about what they said.
The panel released a 260-page report four months after the shooting. It laid out 72 recommendations, ranging from how officials could improve in a time of crisis to detailing major administrative or procedural failings leading up to the event. The panel’s work essentially changed how university campuses are alerted about an active shooter.
“These findings led to significant changes in campus safety protocol, mental health policy, gun background check laws, and best practices in education,” wrote Katie Stuntz, press secretary for Kaine.
Massengill wouldn’t comment on what Virginia Beach should do but said he thinks some kind of review should take place in most of those situations.
“These families, they are looking for some answers,” he said. “They deserve some answers.”
In Parkland, Florida, a state-appointed commission held public meetings and provided detailed information in a report about what happened in the aftermath of the Feb. 14, 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School where 17 people were killed. This took place even as the gunman awaits trial.
With approval from the Florida legislature and governor, an external review began within a couple of months after the shooting. A 16-member commission, all state political appointees, delivered a thorough, 458-page report in January.
The report concluded law enforcement lacked proper training and ran into communication failures. The state commission recommended the sheriff’s office look into why seven deputies did not engage the shooter. Since then, four deputies have been fired, including the school resource officer who stood outside the school while gunfire erupted.
He has been charged with seven counts of felony child neglect for failing to protect students.
In sharp contrast to the wealth of information released after Parkland and Virginia Tech sits Santa Fe, a Texas city roughly 30 miles south of Houston.
In May 2018, a 17-year-old student opened fire in a high school named after the town, killing 10 people and injuring 13.
No independent review has been established.
Family members there said that’s prevented them from moving on because they know little about what transpired. In a vacuum of information, survivors’ grief has stayed fresh as they continue to seek basic answers more than a year after the tragedy.
Such is the case with Rosie Stone, whose 17-year-old son, Chris, was killed in the shooting.
A photograph, taken six days before the Santa Fe school shooting, showing Rosie Stone with her son Chris before he went to his junior prom.
Courtesy of Rosie Stone
“We’re already going through so much, we shouldn’t have to go through life with that question of ‘What really happened?'” she said over the phone Wednesday. “We need that to move forward, to grieve.”
Repeating a complaint she’s voiced since the shooting, Stone says she can tell people everything about her son’s birth but nothing about how he left the world. She described that as torture. Stone said she still can’t access basic information like her son’s autopsy report. In the Santa Fe case, the shooter survived and a trial is pending.
The little information she was able to gather is based on speculation or comes from other students, she said.
Chris was killed in the art classroom, six days after his junior prom, she said. He held a door shut to prevent the shooter from entering. And she believes the gunman shot through that door, with two bullets killing her son.
“In his sacrifice, he actually saved six people in that room. My boy did good,” Stone said, starting to cry. “I just wish he would’ve had a little more time to come home.”
In a push to change the procedures following a mass shooting, she’s traveled to Austin, the state’s capital, and Washington, D.C., arguing for automatic third-party reviews of such incidents. After hearing of the ongoing debate in Virginia Beach, she urged city leaders to quickly approve an independent probe.
“It needs to be done immediately. If the shooting is done today, the investigation needs to start tomorrow,” Stone said. “There is no reason to delay. The details will start to blur.”
In Santa Fe — and now Virginia Beach — she wonders how officials can make educated safety improvements if they don’t have a well-vetted outside review.
“How can we fix something when we don’t even have the information about what was broken?”