On my way to teach a morning class at the Law School four years ago, I was leaving the AT&T Conference Center on University Boulevard driving toward 21st Street with the University of Texas Tower right in front of me, and as I approached the Littlefield Fountain, I heard what sounded like four or five gunshots coming from my left and from the direction of the University Catholic Center. I immediately concluded though that the sounds must be part of a nearby construction project.
However, a moment later, right in front of me and the Littlefield Fountain, about a dozen or so UT students started scrambling behind wastebaskets, trees and monuments, and I initially thought to myself how sad it was that our society had come to a point of everyone immediately thinking that gunshot-like sounds were, indeed, actual gunshots — when, as in this case, they were just noises coming from a nearby construction project. Just then, however, a slender young man wearing a black suit, black tie, white shirt, ski mask and tennis shoes, and carrying a solid-black and very large assault rifle, ran along the street and emerged from my left as I got to 21st Street!
I distinctly remember him turning my way as he ran from left to right directly in front of me and only five feet in front of my car, but then my memory of what happened after that became immediately foggy, even to the point of, at one time, firmly believing that he had fired what I thought were three more shots, not at me, but to my left. As the day went on, however, and as the days progressed, this memory became less and less clear in my mind. And, to this day, it’s still somewhat foggy and unclear.
So, I continue to ask myself how I could have two vague memories of this one single event, both of which to this day remain completely inconsistent with each other. The answer, I believe, lies at the root of the problem with eyewitness testimony, and this is especially so in the midst of surreal, startling and unexpected circumstances. The mind just doesn’t process well during such events, and at that time, my thoughts, fears and emotions were all spinning through my head. I am aware of a number of studies that have been conducted on human memory and on the propensity of eyewitnesses to “remember” events and details that did not occur, and now, some four years later, I’m still wondering why my own mind remains unclear about these crucial and surrealistic seconds.
I quickly became aware that shots were fired. I saw students scrambling for cover. I saw the gunman dressed in a black suit and tie, with a ski mask and an assault weapon. I knew that other campus shootings had involved multiple shooters, so I was scanning for others — even a team of others — who might also be involved. I had put myself in a prime position to be shot, essentially by coasting to 21st Street right in front of the gunman as the initial gunshots were fired. I thought for an instant about running over the shooter with my car (as he was right in front of me for about two seconds or so), but I knew that sometimes people participated in crazy pranks and that this all could be nothing more than that.
So, with my adrenaline surging, and as my pulse quickened, I froze for about 10 seconds as the scene quickly played out right in front of me. As the gunman ran down 21st Street toward Speedway, I made a quick U-turn and went back to the AT&T Conference Center, where, with the help of the valet attendants, I called in the incident to UT Police.
I then got back into my car and drove around the campus to the Law School, where I ran up to my classroom and told them that there was a shooter on campus, that I thought he was likely a real shooter (and not a hoax), and that they should remain in the classroom until they received specific instructions to the contrary. My students were beginning to get text messages to the same effect.
Catching my breath for just a few minutes, I went into an empty classroom down the hall from my own class, and as I was sitting by myself, just thinking of what had happened, my phone rang with a New York City area code. Within about 30 seconds of answering that call, I found myself being interviewed live on nationwide CNN about what I had witnessed. To this day, I have no idea how CNN found knew about what I had seen, nor how they got my cell phone number — all within just a few minutes of the very event itself.
Later that day, as I reflected on a crazy morning, my thoughts turned to sadness about the tragedy of the shooter, Colton Tooley, as his only intent that day evidently was to commit suicide in a way that created a stir, to die by his own hand in a public flash. To this day, I have no idea what caused him to want to do that. One thing is clear, though: Tooley did not want to shoot anyone else. He had ample opportunity, and the weapon, to shoot many people that day — but he didn’t. He only shot himself.
All of that is so very sad for him, his family and his friends. And so very hard to fully understand. Those of us whose life briefly intersected with his plans, however, should recognize that someone with those intentions must, indeed, be mentally ill to do such a thing — but only be just a little more mentally ill to do so much more damage to others who randomly find themselves in his path. In a way, we should consider ourselves fortunate that Tooley’s mental illness — the one that caused his desire to kill himself in this way — had not progressed to the level of taking others with him. It can be a thin and indiscrete line at these levels that separates each degree. Sad as it was, the UT campus can breathe a sigh of relief that Tooley’s mental illness fell below that line.
Wilhite is an adjunct professor at the UT School of Law.