The motive behind a puzzling murder-suicide on the campus of Virginia Tech was still unknown Friday, as investigators continued to piece together why Ross Truett Ashley, a 22-year-old student at a nearby college, killed a campus police officer and then himself.
Ashley, a part-time student at Radford University, approached Officer Deriek W. Crouse during a routine traffic stop on campus and shot him as he sat in his patrol car, said Corinne Geller, the Virginia State Police spokeswoman. Crouse, an Army veteran and married father of five, did not return fire.
Ashley then fled on foot as authorities unleashed an intense manhunt. About 30 minutes later, after changing his clothes, he was spotted making “furtive movements” in a university parking lot by a Montgomery County sheriff’s deputy. The deputy momentarily lost sight of Ashley and by the time the deputy reached him, he had turned the gun on himself.
Ashley’s motive has eluded investigators.
“That’s very much the fundamental part of the investigation right now, determining for what reason this man approached Officer Crouse and took his life,” Geller said at a news conference.
Authorities have ruled out any history between the two men, and the gunman was not a current or former student at Virginia Tech. The male driver pulled over by Crouse is a Virginia Tech student, and he is cooperating with police and has no connection to the shooter, Geller said.
The day before the shooting, Ashley stole a Mercedes-Benz sport utility vehicle at gunpoint from a real estate office in Radford, the Virginia State Police said. The vehicle was found on the Virginia Tech campus Thursday.
Officials, stressing that they are still in the midst of their investigation, stopped short of calling the shooting a “random” attack.
The shooting brought a resurgence of fear to the Blacksburg campus, where in 2007 deranged undergraduate Seung-hui Cho killed 32 people in a shooting spree that was the deadliest by a lone gunman in U.S. history.
“It brought back vivid memories of April 16,” said Wendell Flinchum, Virginia Tech police chief.
Minutes after Thursday’s shooting, school officials employed a new sophisticated emergency response system that alerted faculty and students of the danger through blaring sirens across campus and through text message, email and social media.
“I think it worked exactly as expected,” said Larry Hincker, the associate vice president for university relations.
The shooting took place on the same day that university officials, including campus police, were in Washington appealing a $55,000 fine by the Department of Education in connection with the 2007 rampage. The department has fined the school for waiting more than two hours after the first ring of gunfire to send out an email warning students, teachers and others to take cover and avoid the campus.
Freshman Bronwyn Foley, 18, of Salem, Va., said that libraries were packed with students studying for final exams on Friday, though many took breaks to write notes to the family of Crouse on boards set up on campus.
“It’s been quiet around campus,” Foley said. “Most people have been just trying to get through finals.”
A vigil for Crouse was held Friday evening at the War Memorial, a monument dedicated to alumni who were killed while in military service.
After some remarks, a solitary horn played “Taps” as scores of people, many crying, held their candles in the air, Foley said. After a long silence, some began the familiar chant of “Let’s go, Hokies!”
The War Memorial, which overlooks the expansive grassy field in the middle of campus where mourners gathered, is etched with the university motto: “That I May Serve.”