On May 4, 1970, communications student Terry Strubbe set the microphone of his reel-to-reel tape recorder on the windowsill of his dorm room overlooking Blanket Hill and turned on the recorder before leaving to join the demonstrations rocking his Kent State University campus that beautiful spring Monday. He had no way of knowing that the thirty minute recording he would capture would eventually be the most important clue to what really happened that day. But once Strubbe heard the recording, he knew the tape needed special protection and he arranged to keep it in a climate-controlled bank vault.
The only known recording of events leading up to and including the fatal volley of 67 shots, the Strubbe tape captures a tinny bullhorn announcement commanding students to leave "for your own safety," the pop of tear gas canisters and the wracking coughs of those caught in the gas, the drone of helicopters overhead, and the protests chants and the repeated tolling of the victory bell to rally students before the fatal volley erupts.
Until recently, we thought that was the extent of what the tape revealed.
(The above is a terrific mix of the Strubbe tape and the only known video, made by Chris Abell, showing the shootings. See it here on youtube for the additional links.)
In 1974, the Justice Department paid Bolt Beranek and Newman Inc., a Massachusetts acoustic firm, to analyze the tape as the government prepared its unsuccessful case against eight Guardsmen who had been indicted for depriving the students of their constitutional rights. The company's analysis focused primarily on the gunshot pattern and added relatively little to what we already knew about what happened that day.
A copy of that tape was made after that for the victims to use in their civil case against the Guardsmen and state officials. That cassette copy was eventually donated to Yale University's Kent State archives by one of the attorneys for the victims. There it stayed, occasionally reviewed by researchers for the next thirty years.
In 2007, Alan Canfora, one of the Kent State students wounded that day, listened to the tape as he reviewed materials in the Yale Archives in preparation for a book he was writing. Shortly before the 37th anniversary of the shootings, Canfora claimed that, using an enhanced version of the tape, he heard a command to fire. (Copies of the audio available at the link.)
Shortly before the volley of gunfire, he says, a voice in the background can be heard yelling, "Right here! Get Set! Point! Fire!"
Canfora himself is a somewhat controversial figure and while his claims gained some publicity, most people were suspicious of his interpretation. Not only did what he claimed to hear not sound anything like a military order, people also wondered how it was that Canfora had heard something in a tape that no one else had heard, despite numerous previous reviews.
But this did raise a question in many people's minds. Using sophisticated new analytical techniques, what might the Strubbe tape tell us? Thankfully, the Cleveland Plain Dealer had the resources and curiosity to pursue that question.
First, the tape was digitized. Then it was submitted to Stuart Allen and Tom Owen, two nationally-recognized forensic audio experts with decades of experience deciphering recordings for government and law enforcement agencies as well as private citizens, to analyze. Allen, president and chief engineer of the Legal Services Group of Plainfield, N.J., and Owen, president and CEO of Owl Investigations of Colonia, N.J., donated their services because of the historical significance of the event.
From the Plain Dealer where the audio clip is also available:
Using sophisticated software initially developed for the KGB, the Soviet Union's national security agency, Allen weeded out extraneous noises - wind blowing across the microphone, and a low rumble from the tape recorder's motor and drive belt -- that obscured voices on the recording.
He isolated individual words, first identifying them by their distinctive, spidery "waveform" traces on a computer screen, then boosting certain characteristics of the sound or slowing the playback to make out what was said. Owen independently corroborated Allen's work.
For hours on Thursday, first in Allen's dim, equipment-packed lab in Plainfield and later in Owen's more spacious, equally high-tech shop in nearby Colonia, the two men pored over the crucial recording segment just before the gunfire. They looped each word, playing it over and over, tweaking various controls and listening intently until they agreed on its meaning.
And what they heard was correctly described by Barry Levine, who watched his girlfriend, Allison Krause, die on May 4, 1970, as a "bombshell":
"Guard!" says a male voice on the recording... Several seconds pass. Then, "All right, prepare to fire!"
"Get down!" someone shouts urgently, presumably in the crowd. Finally, "Guard! . . . " followed two seconds later by a long, booming volley of gunshots. The entire spoken sequence lasts 17 seconds.
Owen, listening to the "prepare to fire" command on large wall-mounted loudspeakers, noted: "That's clear as a bell."
The two experts also noted these curiosities on the tape:
• There is a sound fragment milliseconds before the gunfire starts. Allen believes it could be the beginning of the word "Fire!" - just the initial "f" before the sound is overrun by the fusillade. Owen said he can't tell what the sound is.
• The frequency of the voice giving the command changes as the seconds pass. "I'm hearing a Doppler effect," Allen said, referring to the familiar pitch change that occurs as a siren passes. "It's as if he was facing one way and turned another," Owen said. That's consistent with eyewitness accounts that the Guardsmen spun around from the direction they had been marching just before they fired.
• The 1974 Bolt Beranek and Newman analysis concluded that the first three gunshots came from M1s, the World War II-vintage rifles carried by most of the Ohio Guardsmen. The M1 is a high-velocity weapon with a high-pitched gunshot sound.
But Allen and Owen said the initial three gunshots sound lower-pitched than the rest of the volley. "It suggests a lot of things, but we're not certified ballistics examiners," Owen said. Pistols typically are lower-velocity, lower-pitched weapons. Several Guard officers carried .45 caliber pistols, but the Bolt Beranek and Newman analysis identified .45-caliber fire later in the gunshot sequence, not among the first three shots.
These findings are also significant because, of course, the Guard had done a dramatic 135 degree spin immediately before opening fire. And researchers have long suspected that, in fact, the first shots were fired by Sgt. Myron Pryor who was carrying a .45, not an M1. (That's Pryor at the far left with gun drawn in this famous photo.)
Unfortunately, while this analysis sheds light on what may have happened, it does not put the matter to rest by any means.
Without a known voice sample for comparison, the new analysis cannot answer the question of who issued the prepare-to-fire command.
Nor can it reveal why the order was given. Guardsmen reported being pelted by rocks as they headed up Blanket Hill and some said they feared for their safety, but the closest person in the crowd was 60 feet away and there is nothing on the tape to indicate what prompted the soldiers to reverse course, and for the ready-to-shoot command to go out.
And there are those who claim that this supposed order also is inconsistent with a military command:
Ronald Snyder, a former Guard captain who led a unit that was at the Kent State protest but was not involved in the shootings, said Friday that the prepare-to-fire phrasing on the tape does not seem consistent with how military orders are given. "I do know commands," Snyder said. "You would never see anything in training that would say 'Guard, do this.' It would be like saying, 'Army, do this.' It doesn't make sense."
Is there any chance this might lead to renewed legal activity?
Whether the prepare-to-fire order could lead to new legal action or a re-opened investigation of the Kent State shootings is unclear. A federal judge dismissed the charges against the eight indicted Guardsmen in 1974, saying the government had failed to prove its case. The surviving victims and families of the dead settled their civil lawsuit for $675,000 in 1979, agreeing to drop all future claims against the Guardsmen.
The federal acquittal means the soldiers could not be prosecuted again at the federal level, although a county or state official potentially could seek criminal charges, said Sanford Rosen, one of plaintiffs' attorneys in the civil lawsuit.
The legal issues would be complex, he said. The presence of a command could give rank-and-file Guardsmen a defense, since they could argue they were following an order.
The command's significance may be more historical than legal, Rosen said. "At very least, it puts new [focus] on the training and discipline of the Ohio Guard, and provides a lesson of how things should be done correctly when you are faced with civil disorder, particularly when you bring in troops."
"I would think the statutes of limitations pretty well would have run [out] in terms of legal claims that could be brought," Rosen said. "But who knows? Strange things do happen."
The tape's historical significance is greater than its legal ramifications, the attorney said. "Although many events have overtaken the Kent State shootings, it still looms very large in the consciousness of the American people," he said. If a Guard commander gave an order to fire, "that makes a huge difference to how we as a society will look back on the events."
Last fall, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) had pledged to open a new congressional investigation into the shootings as a result of Allen's findings but, well, he lost all power to do that in the November elections.
Watch Allen's Truth Tribunal testimony in which he meticulously reviews his analysis of the Strubbe tape:
But, incredibly, Stuart Allen, who had no specialized understanding of the Kent State shootings prior to undertaking this analysis, wasn't done with his bombshell discoveries. While listening to the tape for the Plain Dealer, Allen heard an anomaly about 70 seconds prior to the shootings that bothered him. When he went back and reviewed those events, he discovered "a noisy, violent altercation and four pistol shots...."
"They got somebody," an observer says. "Kill him!" at least two male voices repeatedly shout, followed by sounds of a struggle and a female voice yelling, "Whack that [expletive]!" or "Hit that [expletive]!" Four distinct shots matching the acoustic signature of a .38-caliber revolver then ring out....
In my diary on the events of May 4, I detailed one of the most troubling loose ends from the shootings:
After the firing ceased, the Guard marched back to their original position around the burned-out ROTC building. Within minutes, a young man carrying a gun, a camera, and a gas mask ran over the hill, pursued by another person, yelling, "Stop that man. He has a gun. He fired four shots."
Terry Norman, the youth with the gun, was a 22-year-old occasional student at Kent State and a free-lance photographer whose primary interest seemed to be taking photos of campus demonstrations. Apparently, at various times, he worked for the campus police, the FBI, or both. Before the May 4 demonstration, Sergeant Mike Delaney, press liaison for the Guard, had initially refused to issue Norman a press pass because Norman lacked the proper credentials. A campus liaison offered to vouch for Norman but that didn't sway Delaney. He finally relented only after the campus police intervened, saying that Norman was "under contract to the FBI to take pictures." When Norman reached the Guard line after the shootings, Delaney heard him exclaim: "I had to shoot! They would have killed me."
Several students later told the FBI they saw Norman fire his weapon. After stopping at the guard line, Norman was quickly surrounded by the KSU police. KSU policeman Tom Kelly took possession of Norman's gun, a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver. NBC reporter Fred DeBrine saw Kelly make "a movement, which resembled the action taken when opening the cylinder on a revolver" and heard the policeman exclaim, "My God, he fired dour shots! What do we do now?" Later, however, Kelly claimed that Norman's gun was "fully loaded" and "had not been fired." In any case, the KSU policemen quickly hustled Norman away from the scene.
Curiously, when the FBI received Norman's gun, the cartridges they found in the cylinder came from five different manufacturers, leading many to believe that the gun was quickly reloaded with whatever bullets were handy. The FBI agents also concluded that the gun had been fired since its last cleaning, although they could not say when. Three years later, as the House of Representatives threatened to investigate the Kent State shootings, FBI director Clarence Kelley finally revealed that Terry Norman had indeed been on the FBI payroll. On April 29, 1970 - a mere 5 days before the shootings - he had received "a cash payment of $125 ... for information which he voluntarily provided to the FBI concerning activities of the National Socialist White People's Party." Norman's connection to the FBI almost certainly explains why he was never subjected to further scrutiny and why his possible role in the shootings was summarily dismissed by the official investigations. Norman later stated in his only sworn statement about the shootings that he did not fire his weapon that day. After that, he remained beyond the jurisdiction of all investigative bodies. "Terry Norman," declared the Scranton Commission tersely, "a free-lance photographer, was taking pictures of the demonstration and was seen with a pistol after the Guard fired. Several civilians chased him from Taylor Hall into the Guard line, where he surrendered a .38-caliber revolver. The gun was immediately examined by a campus policeman, who found that it had not been fired." And, officially, that was the end of it. But, for many, the role of Terry Norman remains one of the bigger mysteries of the Kent State shootings.
[Watch this video for the best footage of Harold Sherman Reid chasing Norman after the shootings. Starts at 57 seconds.]
The fact that Allen knew nothing about the controversy surrounding Terry Norman makes his discovery even more startling, especially since he independently determined the shots came from a .38 which everyone agrees is what Norman was carrying that day.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer once again added to our understanding of these events:
On the morning of Monday, May 4, 1970, Norman moved among the protesters and National Guardsmen skirmishing on campus, snapping pictures as the tension escalated. He had a press card issued by the Guard, and brought his own gas mask to fend off clouds of tear gas from the canisters Guardsmen fired to disperse the crowds, which demonstrators lobbed back at the soldiers.
Norman also had the pistol. In his only known interview, he told an Akron Beacon Journal reporter on the afternoon of the shootings that he carried it because protesters had threatened his life four times while he took photos at sit-ins during the weekend.
The Plain Dealer went on:
Norman, panting and disheveled, sought shelter among the Guardsmen. As the WKYC camera rolled, he reached under his jacket and handed a gun to a police officer. "The guy tried to kill me," he said, recounting an assault that he would later repeatedly assert took place after the Guard shootings.
"The guy starts to beat me up, man, tries to drag my camera away, hits me in the face," Norman said, gesturing.
What happened next is in dispute. Both former WKYC reporter Fred DeBrine and sound man Joe Butano have said repeatedly over the years that they heard Kent State police Detective Thomas Kelley, who took possession of Norman's gun and had opened its cylinder, say, "Oh my God, he fired four times." In interviews with The Plain Dealer this week, DeBrine and Butano reiterated that account.
Kelley later denied having made that statement and KSU Policeman Harold Rice, who took possession of Norman's gun, said that it was fully loaded and did not smell of having been recently discharged. WKYC did not capture any of this on film because they had turned their attention to the ambulance then screaming over the hill to tend to the wounded and dying. (Unfortunately, the WKYC film crew never left the Commons that day, staying on the opposite side of the hill from where the shootings themselves occurred.)
DeBrine tried to convince Norman, whom he had known for some time, to do an on-camera interview the next day but Norman demurred. DeBrine, however, remembered Norman telling him, "They started to come toward me and I was afraid they were going to kill me, so I took out my revolver and I fired it into the air and into the ground. Then the Guard, shortly thereafter or upon hearing the shots, turned and fired."
This is a remarkable statement as it suggests that Norman, himself, thought that he had, perhaps, triggered the gunfire. However, it contradicts another statement from Norman:
Norman told investigators that he was assaulted after the Guard gunfire, not before. He recounted trying to help a "hippie-style person" lying on the ground, then being jumped by several protesters who tried to grab his camera, pummeled him with their fists and a rock, and yelled "Kill the pig!" and "Stick the pig!" Norman reported that he drew his gun and told his attackers to back off "or you're going to get it," then ran for the Guard encampment. He insisted he didn't fire.
At least one witness, Kent State junior Janet Falbo, said she saw an altercation between protesters and a man matching Norman's description that occurred five minutes before the Guard shootings.
In a letter written the next day to university president Robert White, Falbo said a young man with a gas mask, camera and shiny silver handgun hit a student in the face with the pistol's butt. When others approached, the man "turned into an animal. He crouched down and pointed the gun at everyone in all directions, saying 'I'll shoot.'" Falbo did not see him fire.
So, while Allen's discovery certainly doesn't answer all the questions, it certainly does strongly suggest that Norman, as suspected, did fire his weapon and that brings me back to the nagging question I have had all these years.
Again, from my earlier diary:
Another theory advanced immediately after the shootings claimed the guardsmen fired in response to a sniper. This was the rationale offered Monday night by Adjutant General Sylvester Del Corso. Staff Sergeant Barry Morris claimed he heard a shot from behind: "It was not a clear loud crack like it would have been if it had been fired out in the open." Sergeant Shafer, the only guardsman to admit firing intentionally at a specific individual, initially agreed: "We got over the crest of the hill. There was a single shot. It was impossible to hear what was going on."
As I detailed in my testimony to the Kent State Truth Tribunal, Terry Norman offered the Ohio National Guard the perfect excuse for what happened that day. All they had to do was point the finger at him and accuse him of being the sniper. After all, people saw him with a gun. There was film footage of him surrendering a gun. Several witnesses were ready to testify that he had fired that gun. All the ONG had to do was throw Terry Norman under the bus and the world would have understood what happened that day. Yes, of course, it would have still been a horrible tragedy. Undoubtedly, some would have still questioned the need for 28 separate Guardsmen to have fired 67 shots over thirteen long seconds to counter one sniper. But most people would have shrugged it off as the fog of "battle." After all, most people were perfectly willing to excuse the Guardsmen without the sniper explanation. Had they offered up a sniper, complete with film footage of the culprit, in the immediate aftermath of the shootings, there is little doubt that the whole episode would have been cast in a totally different light by the press and the public.
BUT THEY DID NOT DO THAT! And WHY NOT??? must be asked. Why was it so important to protect Terry Norman? And who decided that his role had to be concealed, despite the ramifications for the Ohio National Guard?
Almost certainly the answer has to lie in who exactly Terry Norman was and what his connection was to the FBI or other elements of the US intelligence community. Luckily for us, the Kent State Truth Tribunal also elicited some remarkable testimony on that score. Janet Sima, a former Kent State student and sometimes girlfriend of Terry Norman, testified that she accompanied Norman to Washington, DC, in December 1968 so that he could attend a meeting involving the FBI. "I felt like he couldn't talk about it," said Sima, who didn't press for more details but did go to DC with Norman and, because she had never flown before or been to Washington, DC, kept her ticket and pictures in a scrapbook she brought to her Truth Tribunal testimony. For those who have read this far, her testimony is well worth watching:
So what was Terry Norman's role? Since Norman refuses to speak, it's unlikely we'll ever really know all the answers. A very thorough examination of the evidence by the Plain Dealer discovered a number of anomalies:
• The Kent State police department's and FBI's initial assessment of Norman was badly flawed, with failures to test his pistol and clothing for evidence of firing, to interview witnesses who claimed Norman may have shot his gun and to pursue the question of whether it was reloaded before police verified its condition.
• The Kent State police detective who took possession of Norman's pistol, and whose investigation ruled out its having been fired, was directing Norman's work as an informant and later helped him get a job as a police officer.
• Norman's various statements about why he drew his pistol are inconsistent on some important details and are contradicted by other eyewitnesses. Also, Norman would barely have had time for what he claims to have done during that crucial period.
• Kent State officers knew Norman regularly carried guns, including on campus, even though the department's chief and another local law enforcement official had doubts about Norman's maturity and self-control.
• The FBI initially denied any connection with Norman, although the bureau had paid him for undercover work a month before the Kent State shootings. His relationship with the FBI may have begun even earlier than Norman has acknowledged, and he may later have had ties to the CIA.
• After the May 4 tragedy, Norman transformed from informant to cop to criminal.
While their admirable reporting fleshes out many of these issues, in the end, we are left with the same nagging questions.
Likewise, Janis Froehlich, an author and former reporter for the Akron Beacon-Journal and Tampa Tribune, did a remarkable job of piecing together the story of Terry Norman, including his turbulent post-1970 life, in a lengthy 2006 article. Froehlich even tracked down Norman's elderly uncle, since deceased, who told her that Norman fired to scare off attackers, but later declined to say whether this happened before or after the Guard opened fire. Jim Norman, calling his nephew a scapegoat, said he "just wanted to be James Bond."
Froelich's article documents Norman's hiring as an undercover narcotics agent by the Washington, D.C. police department three months after the shootings, a job supposedly secured for him by the FBI, and his 1983 move to California. In the 1990s, he pleaded guilty to defrauding his California employer and spent more than three years in federal prison. (And, yes, I'll admit to some schadenfreude over that.) Ultimately, she tracked him to a North Carolina mountain town but he has adamantly refused to speak with anyone.
Until or unless he does, it's likely that, thanks to Stuart Allen and Janet Sima, we've traveled a little further down the road to truth. Unfortunately, once again, we seem to have slammed up against a roadblock.