One man's quest

The late Charles A. Thomas spent more than 3 decades investigating many of the unresolved issues in the 1970 Kent State shootings.

By Jim DeBrosse, Dayton Daily News, May 1, 2004

Charles A. Thomas was a 32-year-old specialist in vintage radio recordings at the National Archives in 1975 when he was given the task of cataloging the film footage of the Kent State shootings that occurred on May 4, 1970.

In the noon brightness of that Monday, following a weekend of sometimes violent protests in Kent and on campuses around the country against expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia, at least 10 members of the Ohio National Guard fired 63 shots, some in the air but most at Kent State students.

The 13-second barrage would leave four students dead and nine wounded, including one permanently paralyzed. Even though the guardsmen later said they felt their lives were in danger, the nearest victim was 71 feet away, the farthest 730 feet -- a distance of more than two football fields.

As he began cataloging the film, Thomas made a disturbing finding: None of the footage showing dead and wounded students after the lethal volley had been used in the public hearings of the Scranton Commission in the months following the shootings.

Suspicious, Thomas pulled the sound tapes that had been played at the hearings and found that the moments when students were shouting loudest at the guardsmen had been spliced to occur just before the shootings, eliminating the disturbing lull before the shots could be heard on the original tape.

Thomas was reprimanded by archive officials for publicizing his findings, but it set him on a quest to investigate the Kent State shootings that lasted nearly three decades and ended only with his death at age 61 from cancer last December in Marietta, Ga.

Thomas eventually was removed from his job at the National Archives for "mental instability" and criticizing his fellow employees. His friends admit he could be difficult to work with, but argue that the real reason for his demotion was his obsession over the Kent State shootings and one of its victims in particular -- 19-year-old Allison Krause.

Critics say his radical theory behind the tragic event -- that President Nixon and then-Ohio Gov. James A. Rhodes conspired to make an example of students at Kent State -- has never been proven.

But the nine boxes of government documents, articles, notes and other materials that Thomas left to the university are sure to contribute to the questions that still echo 34 years after the shots at Kent State rang out.

Did the Ohio National Guardsmen conspire to shoot the students?

What role did a pistol-packing FBI informant chased from the scene play in the deadly encounter?

Did someone at the federal level decide an example had to be made of student protesters to stem the nation's campus unrest?

Conspiracy theory

Most historians now generally agree that at least some of the guardsmen at Kent -- probably a handful of men in G Troop -- conspired to retaliate against the students for what was mostly verbal abuse and ridicule, including "tennis matches" in which smoking tear gas canisters were tossed back and forth between troops and demonstrators.

Although the guardsmen claimed after the shootings they were pummeled by rocks and bricks, few of the objects thrown by students reached their targets, and none was large enough to cause injury, the FBI concluded.

The young troops deployed by Rhodes to Kent State were exhausted and on edge. They had spent the last four days in Cleveland trying to restore order in a bitter truckers' strike when they arrived without a break at Kent late Saturday night May 2.

The friction turned white hot just before noon on Monday, May 4, when a contingent of guardsmen was given the ill-advised order to advance across the Kent State commons and disperse the last of the protestors gathered near Taylor and Prentice halls.

After marching across the commons, up and over Blanket Hill and down to a practice football field adjacent to the Prentice Hall parking lot, the guardsmen found their advance blocked by a chain-link fence their commanding officers hadn't seen.

For several frustrating minutes, the embarrassed troops were subjected to intense abuse from students in the parking lot before being ordered to retreat. It was on the practice field that photos seem to show a quick "huddle" in which some of the guardsmen could have hatched a plan.

A few minutes later, having retreated to the crest of Blanket Hill, the guardsmen turned precisely and in unison, then unleashed a barrage of bullets primarily at students who were still in the parking lot in front of Prentice Hall.

The FBI concluded that guard officers fabricated a story that the troops had been chased by protesting students up the hill and that their lives had been in danger. All but two of the 13 victims were 200 feet or more away when they were shot.

The Scranton Commission, the independent panel charged with investigating the causes of the nation's campus unrest, blamed some Kent students for violent and criminal acts but branded the shootings as "unnecessary, unwarranted and inexcusable."

Even so, the Nixon administration worked feverishly behind the scenes for three years to block a trial of the guardsmen, pressing federal officials to close the case three times. Eventually, in March 1974, a federal grand jury indicted eight of the guardsmen. None ever faced a criminal trial.

Given the intense generational and political animosities of the period, the legal outcome wasn't surprising: Polls showed 58 percent of Americans thought the students themselves were primarily to blame and only 11 percent faulted the men who pulled the triggers.

In Four Dead in Ohio: Was There A Conspiracy at Kent State? (1995), California-based author William A. Gordon called the shootings "the most popular murders ever committed in the United States."

Many mysteries remain unsolved, including the role played by a mysterious FBI informant named Terry Norman, who was on campus at the time taking photos of student dissidents. Although there are conflicting reports on what Norman had been doing prior to the shootings, there is no question that he was involved in a fight with students just moments after the barrage.

During the scuffle, Norman pulled a .38-caliber gun from under his sport coat and threatened students. He then ran across the length of the commons to police and National Guard lines, where the pistol was confiscated.

Kent State police and FBI officials at first denied any connection with Norman and insisted his gun had never been fired. But in 1973, FBI Chief Clarence Kelly conceded that, a month prior to the shootings, the FBI had paid Norman to spy on a neo-Nazi group.

FBI files released in 1977 also appear to contradict the argument that Norman had never fired his gun. FBI lab tests conducted immediately after the shootings revealed that Norman's gun had been discharged since its last cleaning. Exactly when is anyone's guess.

For some Kent State researchers, including Thomas, the strange case of Terry Norman led to a suspicion that the FBI, or some other federal intelligence agency, had placed agent provocateurs on the Kent State campus to stir up trouble.

Several witnesses reported seeing two or three men run from the commons and into a waiting station wagon, disappearing moments before shots rang out, said Peter Davies, the New Jersey-based author of The Truth About Kent State: A Challenge to the American Conscience (1973).

"Those were the agent provocateurs, we think," Davies said.

Decades of research

In an unpublished book Thomas spent decades researching and revising, he noted that undercover agents with the Ohio Highway Patrol had incited student violence just days earlier at Ohio State University, when police shot and wounded seven students. A New York Times story didn't reveal the presence of the agents until six months later.

No one was ever indicted for having set fire to the ROTC Building at Kent State on May 2 -- the flashpoint that led Gov. Rhodes to call in the Ohio National Guard. Several clumsy attempts by demonstrators to torch the old wooden structure apparently failed. Witnesses observed that the building began to blaze only after it was surrounded by police, leading conspiracy theorists to argue that police, or their agents, set fire to the building.

Thomas spent years researching whether President Nixon himself had a hand in orchestrating the shootings. However, Nixon did not start taping his White House conversations until 1971, and in a long deposition given in the civil trial against the Ohio National Guardsmen, Rhodes denied ever keeping a log of his phone calls.

Thomas was especially intrigued by a late-night phone call to Robby Stamps, one of the Kent State victims, eight years after the shootings.

Thomas wrote in his book manuscript that "Stamps was awakened by a post-midnight phone call from an individual identifying himself as a former DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) agent. The caller claimed that at ten o'clock on the morning of May 4, 1970, he and his fellow undercover agents had assembled at Perkins' Pancake House across from the Prentice Gate.

"The briefing officer informed them that, after President Nixon had been told of the ROTC fire, he had called Governor Rhodes and demanded that he make a 'good example of someone' at Kent State."

The governor was on a plane the following Sunday morning to Kent, where he gave an impromptu speech at a press conference that can be described only as inflammatory.

Without mentioning specifics, Rhodes claimed that "we are up against the strongest, well-trained militant revolutionary group that has ever assembled in America ... They are the worst type of people we harbor in America ... (and they intend) to destroy higher education in America."

In his notes, Thomas observed that Rhodes had thumped the speakers' table a total of 65 times while delivering his 433-word tirade.

Stamps, now an adjunct professor in San Diego, said he did in fact receive the late-night call but he didn't give it much credence. For one thing, he said, "I didn't even want to speak to the guy. He sounded incoherent."

The caller told Stamps he had "smoking-gun evidence" of an order to fire on the students, but that he had kept it to himself all these years, Stamps said.

"I said, 'Listen, I'm going to turn this over to my attorneys.' The following week, they followed up on it and there was nothing to it. But Mr. Thomas ascribed a lot of importance to it."

Thomas wrote numerous versions of his book, ranging from 200 pages to 700 pages in length, including 400 pages of footnotes. None was ever published.

Fielding McGehee, Thomas' close friend and editor, said publishers were impressed with the depth and range of Thomas' research but put off by his polemical writing style. (In one version of his manuscript, McGehee had to remove Thomas' repeated use of the word "AmeriKKKa"). Thomas had earned a master's degree in military history from Duke University, completing his thesis on the first uses of aerial bombardment in World War I.

"He had very, very high standards he imposed on both his friends and himself," McGehee said. "He tried to do everything to perfection, and he felt his calls to action should have been heeded. But the world is not a perfect place."

Thomas was inspired -- some say obsessed -- by the memory of Kent State victim Allison Krause. His interest led him, in the weeks before his own death, to inquire whether he might be buried next to Krause's grave. The family politely declined.

The day before the shootings, Krause spotted a guardsman with a lilac blossom in his rifle barrel. She was chatting with the young soldier, said Barry Levine, her boyfriend at the time, when a Guard officer appeared and told him to remove it. Krause told the officer: "Flowers are better than bullets."

Yet witnesses say she was one of the more strident protesters on the day of the shootings. If so, she paid a heavy price: Krause was fatally shot through the left arm and side of her chest while trying to dodge to safety behind a car -- 343 feet from where her killer fired.

"Everything I've read about her, including Charlie's own research, made it seem like she was a very passionate and vibrant woman," McGehee said.

Conspiracy theorists in the Kent State shootings are a small but dogged group, said Jerry M. Lewis, an eyewitness to the shootings and now a professor emeritus of sociology at Kent State. Lewis still teaches a course there on the shootings.

"Twenty books have been written on May 4, and I've never seen any evidence to support" a Nixon-Rhodes conspiracy, Lewis said. Conspiracy theorists believe "if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's a duck. But to me, you have to show the connection."

Alan Canfora, who was shot through the wrist May 4 and was captured in numerous photos defiantly waving a black flag in front of the guardsmen, said he sometimes bitterly disagreed with Thomas' theories, but that he often steers students and researchers to Thomas' collection. "He very concisely summarized many of the major points in that trial," said Canfora, who is now director of the Kent May 4 Center, a nonprofit educational charity.

McGehee said Thomas left to Kent State "one of the most complete listings of works" on the federal agencies that were active in monitoring, infiltrating and influencing the anti-war movement in general and student dissent in particular.

Historians of every view agree that the truth about Kent State will continue to unfold as new documents emerge and witnesses step forward -- perhaps the guardsmen themselves. But time is running out: The two top Ohio National Guard commanders at the time -- Adj. General Sylvester Del Corso and Gen. Robert H. Canterbury -- are now dead. So is the man that many eyewitnesses believe shot the first bullets at the students -- Sgt. Myron Pryor of G Troop -- who stood at the far right flank of G Troop aiming a .45-caliber pistol.

Pryor denied all his life that he had fired any shots that day. His own gun showed no evidence of having been fired, but a similar gun belonging to another guardsman in G Troop did show evidence of firing. The owner of that gun had been in the armory at the time of the shootings. Pryor acknowledged that he had come from the armory before reporting for duty that morning, leading to speculation that he had borrowed the gun and hidden it inside his jacket.

Many guardsmen simply want to leave the past behind.

"Let it lay," said former Capt. Raymond J. Srp of G Troop, one of three former guardsmen who declined comment for the story. Srp was one of the few members of G Troop to testify that the guardsmen weren't in any danger at the time of the shootings.

1970 * April 30: President Nixon announces the invasion of Cambodia, triggering massive protests on campuses across the country; May 2: Ohio National Guardsmen are sent to Kent State after the university's Army ROTC building is burned down;

May 3: Ohio Gov. James A. Rhodes personally appears on campus and vows to use "every force possible" to maintain order;

May 4: Four students are killed and nine others are wounded when a contingent of Guardsman suddenly opens fire during a noontime demonstration;

Aug. 3: Governor Rhodes orders a "special" state grand jurybe empaneled to investigate criminal actions on part of both students and guards men;

Oct. 4: The President's Commission on Campus Unrest concludes that some students "were violent and criminal" but brands the shootings as "unnecessary, unwarranted and inexcusable"; Oct. 16: The special state grand jury exonerates the Guardsmen but indicts 25 people, mostly students, for on-campus offenses.

1971 * Jan. 28: A federal judge upholds the state's indictments of the students, but orders the state grand jury's report be expunged and physically destroyed for bias;

Aug. 13: Attorney General John Mitchell closes the case, claiming "there is no likelihood of successful prosecutions of individual Guardsmen";

Dec. 8: Ohio officials dismiss charges against 20 of the 25 individuals indicted by the grand jury.

1973-1975 * Dec. 11. 1973: Assistant Attorney General Stanley J. Pottinger empanels a federal grand jury;

March 28, 1974: The federal grand jury indicts eight Guardsmen on charges they deprived students of their right to due process. No conspiracy is alleged;

Nov. 8, 1974: Federal Judge Frank Battisti dismisses the criminal charges against the Guardsmen, ruling the prosecutors failed to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt;

May 28, 1975: A three-month-long wrongful death and injury trial begins, providing the first opportunity to consider the evidence in public;

Aug. 27, 1975: After hearing highly conflicting testimony and endless arguments over admissible evidence, the jury decides not to award damages to surviving parents and injured students.

1977-1979 * Sept. 12, 1977: A federal appeals court in Cincinnati overturns the decision of the 1975 civil jury on grounds that the judge mishandled an incident involving jury tampering;

Dec. 9, 1978: The second civil trial begins;

Jan. 4, 1979: The victims settle out of court for a total of $675,000 and a "statement of regret" signed by the defendants.

Four Dead in Ohio (North Ridge Books, 1995.)

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