In the early afternoon of May 4, 1970, I was a 23-year-old college student, waiting in front of a coffee shop to pick up the bus I was scheduled to drive for my job at the Kent State University Campus Bus Service.
The bus never showed, but a procession of ambulances did, and I followed the sirens to the scene of an antiwar rally on campus, where there was blood on the pavement.
On the way, I stopped a breathless student who was coming my way and asked him what had happened.
“Snipers fired at the National Guard, and they shot back!” he gasped. “I heard that two guardsmen were killed, and at least one student, and lots were wounded!” Then he was off.
That wasn’t what had happened, of course. Rumor and misinformation surged through the campus and out into the world that day. We soon learned the truth: Four students were killed and nine wounded, and no guardsmen were injured by gunfire. But beyond that, the truth has been more elusive than you would expect with all the witnesses who were there. Today, more than 40 years later, the quest to get to the heart of what really happened on May 4 continues.
I’ve thought about that scared young man who gave me my first, wildly inaccurate report on what happened on May 4 many times as I’ve read Plain Dealer reporter John Mangels’ series of articles about the shootings, the latest of which appears on Page One today.
When the student mentioned sniper fire, I thought it was the craziest thing I’d ever heard. And over the years, people who have said that they heard shots before the guardsmen turned and fired have generally been disbelieved.
But last spring, Mangels learned of the existence of a copy of an audiotape made during the shootings with a microphone hung outside a student’s dorm room. Mangels took the tape to a pair of audio experts in New Jersey, who analyzed its contents and delivered some solid evidence that confirmed what had previously been only 40 years of speculation. In May, the audio analysts reported that they could hear someone giving the guard an order to fire. And in October, after a deeper analysis, one of them picked up the sound of four shots that occurred 70 seconds before the guardsmen’s volley.
Today, Mangels takes the story another step forward with a detailed look at what is known about the enigmatic figure who some suspect fired those four shots: Terry Norman.
The Page One reporting has been enough to rekindle interest in the shootings, and to prompt the Justice Department to consider taking another look at the long dormant investigation.
Many readers find these stories fascinating, but some have wondered noisily why the newspaper would bother with a 40-year-old case that seemed settled long ago. I’ll plead guilty, as a Kent alumnus who was there at the time, to being fascinated with the subject. But Mangels doesn’t have my connection: He was an 11-year-old Florida sixth-grader in 1970, and didn’t have any particular interest in the shootings until the tape fairly dropped into his lap last April while he was working on a 40th anniversary story.
He is aggressively interested now, however.
“First, because I love a good mystery,” he said. “The Kent State shootings are one of the most compelling mysteries of the 20th century, and there’s never been a good answer to what really happened.
“But second, it’s pretty obvious that certain evidence wasn’t adequately pursued, and the investigations had some serious lapses,” he said. “I think that’s what reporters should do — not only take note of that but attempt to fill in the gaps as best they can.”
Mangels’ boss, Metro Editor Chris Quinn, also lacks a connection to Kent State, but he knows a good story when he sees one. “John has tapped into information about one of the defining moments of the last half-century,” said Quinn, “and he’s telling people lots of things about it that they didn’t know.”
Forty years on, there’s a sense of urgency in Mangels’ reporting.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked for people who can shed light on this and found out they were dead, or I couldn’t find them at all. The clock is definitely ticking,” Mangels said.
There’s no statute of limitation on a good story, particularly one that keeps on yielding fresh information 40 years later.
The search for truth is a worthy endeavor — for people who weren’t even born when the shootings occurred, as well as for us aging Kent State hippies who are still around and remember that day as if it were yesterday.
This column was originally published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on Dec. 19, 2010.