Editorial: Beach shooting report leaves questions unanswered

The Virginian-Pilot & Daily Press Editorial Board, The Virginian-Pilot
·3 min read

Trying to make sense of an inherently senseless act is almost always an exercise in frustration. So it is with the final report into the 2019 mass casualty shooting at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center.

The final summary, released on Wednesday, offers a revised timeline and clearly detailed recounting of the events as they unfolded on that terrible day. But the missing piece of the puzzle — what drove a city employee to open fire on his coworkers — is still nowhere to be found.

That’s a tremendous disappointment. For the survivors, families of the victims and all who experienced that tragedy and were hoping to understand what happened — and the closure that information might provide — it’s another bitter pill to swallow.

The report, done by the security risk management firm Hillard Heintze and available at the city’s website, provides a minute-by-minute accounting, beginning with the shooter’s resignation letter in the morning through his rampage outside and inside Building 2, to his capture by responding law enforcement and death from shots fired by police. The revised timeline mirrors one pieced together by Pilot reporters in December 2019.

It highlights in clear, unadorned language the quick response by officers and the courage they showed in a harrowing and chaotic situation. It confirms previous details about the officer who was shot while exchanging gunfire with the shooter and saved by his ballistics vest.

It speaks to the courage of city employees who tried to shield and protect coworkers from the ongoing violence. It reminds us again of the heroism of Keith Cox, who was killed that day. He ushered seven coworkers into a secure room and was shot while trying to save more lives.

And this narrative also confirms the horrifying randomness of what transpired, that in a building with about 400 employees, the shooter’s turn one way or another was the difference between safety and danger — between life and death — for those still at work on a Friday afternoon.

For those who lost loved ones and friends that day, even the straightforward recounting of these details will likely be difficult, if not impossible, to read. The reminders are still too much, the memories too painful, to relive them.

It is essential that this community provide them comfort, strength and support during yet another difficult hour. We continue to grieve with this and agonize that we do not know more about why this happened.

Toward that end, the report presents a lot of dots but does not connect them. It says the shooter was a well regarded employee until 2017 when a divorce appears to have left him unmoored. His ex-wife told investigators that he exhibited signs of paranoia beginning around that time, and his personnel record reflects a sharp decline in his work.

Investigators include a dispute over payment for one of the projects he managed that was referred to the city’s legal department, though he was told by a supervisor it was not “a big deal.” That occurred on May 30, a day prior to the shooting.

But he carried out his deadly violence silently, did not leave a note, had no history of legal trouble and successfully passed 11 background checks for firearm purchases between 2006 and 2019. That leaves only speculation and assumption about his motive, which this report will not erase.

The report also makes no mention of whether there was a hostile work environment at the city, which Hillard Heintze said would be a focus of its investigation. Virginia Beach has conducted employee surveys and made other efforts to address those concerns, but its absence in the report is notable.

Sadly, that means the community is left to wonder what went so terribly wrong for this man that he chose to carry out this attack and rob our community of so many cherished lives, taking them from their spouses, children, loved ones and friends.

We may never know why this happened, but we should continue to honor the memories of those lost and care for those they left behind.