The gunfire has just ended, almost as abruptly as it began. Student Harold Reid maneuvers his way up Blanket Hill among some of the casualties, perhaps a couple hundred feet from the National Guardsmen. That's when he notices a young man pointing a handgun in the direction of another man who is lying on the ground. The armed man obviously is not a member of the National Guard; he's wearing a light sports jacket and tan trousers, and a camera and a gas mask hang around his neck. When the man sees Reid, he begins to run.
"Stop that man, he has a weapon!" shouts Reid, chasing after him.
That man — Terrence Brookes Norman — has never stopped running. He has avoided attention for 36 years, perhaps for good reason. He was an FBI informant in 1970, and some believe he fired the first shot at Kent State that day in May, instigating the National Guard to fire on protestors.
Norman's role and long silence are not the only factors fueling conspiracy theories surrounding the events of May 4, 1970. Although the lives of everyone present were profoundly affected by the 13 seconds they shared, few agree on many specifics. Questions remain. Cover-ups are alleged. And only one thing is clear: Someone has to be lying.
I'm not supposed to be here.
Dennis Breckenridge marched up Blanket Hill on the Kent campus with the rest of the guardsman of Troop G of the Ohio National Guard. A barrage of thrown rocks hammered against his body as student activists pursued him and his fellow guardsmen. The students were close enough for Breckenridge to see the anger in their eyes as they pelted him with stones and shouted, "Pigs! Pigs! Pigs!" Their hatred was almost palpable, and he wondered if perhaps they thought the guardmen's M-1 rifles weren't loaded.
I'm not supposed to be here.
A 26-year-old sergeant, Breckenridge was supposed to retire from the service a week earlier. But the Teamsters went on strike and before he could turn in his weapon, he was called upon to protect scabs from getting killed on the highway. Then hippies started burning down Kent, and his troop was transferred there.
The longhairs were mostly angry with President Nixon, who had announced plans to invade Cambodia. After burying a copy of the Constitution during a demonstration on campus, the leftist students of Kent State had taken to the streets on Friday, May 1. They broke storefront windows and scared residents with their chants of "Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh!" and "One, two, three, four, we don't want your ***** war!" They ignited a bonfire in the street. The mayor declared a state of emergency and Gov. Jim Rhodes called in the National Guard to push the protestors back toward campus using tear gas.
The rebellion escalated on Saturday, when the ROTC building was torched. The next day, the hippies staged a massive sit-in on Main Street, completely blocking traffic. That was when Breckenridge's troop was sent in. That was when he was first bruised by flying rocks.
I'm not supposed to be here.
Hoping to avoid further injury on May 4, he wore thick clothing and rolled his jacket up around his neck, he recalls. And as Troop G retreated up the hill behind Taylor Hall shortly after noon, Breckenridge was so hot he could hardly breath. He felt the adrenaline in his blood, causing his heart to race. He thought he might be hyperventilating. The wind carried tear gas. Some protestors were throwing the half-spent smoking canisters back at the guardsmen. Rocks thrown from several yards arced like golf balls, curving across the sky toward their targets.
Breckenridge heard someone yell, "We're out of gas!"
Then, a shot rang out, followed by a continuous volley of gunfire. Breckenridge temporarily forgot his own pain — and the fact that he was not supposed to be there. For the next 13 seconds, he watched as their bullets raced toward the students, dividing the day into vignettes of tragedy.
John Filo, a senior journalism student with a camera slung around his neck, yells at the students to stop running. He thinks the guardsmen are shooting blanks, trying to scare everyone. Filo snaps pictures as he yells, framing the melee as well as he can manage through the viewfinder of his Nikkormat. Then he watches as a bullet pierces a metal sculpture standing between the guardsmen and the students. It punches a circle of light through the piece of artwork, rendering it priceless forever. These are not blanks.
As the guardsmen swing around and raise their weapons, 18-year-old Joseph Lewis flips them the bird. He has been a relatively passive participant to this point, but something about the audacity of the military men's threat of violence angers him. He had worked through high school to save enough money for one year of college and now these men have taken over his campus.
Guardsman Larry Shafer spots Lewis's obscene gesture as he pivots and raises his M-1. Shafer shoots the man in the stomach. Another guardsman shoots Lewis in the left leg, just above the ankle.
Alan Canfora has been a visible protestor all day, shouting profanities at the guardsmen and defiantly waving a dark flag as they tried to disperse the crowd of students. As the bullets pierce the air, Canfora leaps for cover behind a tree. He isn't quick enough. Someone shoots him in the wrist. It seems they are aiming for him.
In the parking lot of Prentice Hall, 270 feet from the guardsmen, Jeff Miller watches them fire into the crowd. He has been in the front ranks most of the day, so many of the guardsmen must recognize his face. One of them puts a bullet directly into Miller's mouth, a symbolic bit of retribution. It exits the base of Miller's skull and his body collapses onto the concrete.
Nearby, Miller's friend and fellow activist Allison Krause begins to turn away. She is shot three times in the back. "Barry, I'm hit!" she exclaims, calling out for a friend. The bullet that kills her enters through her left arm and travels to her chest.
Sandy Scheuer is 390 feet away when she is shot through the neck. She falls, her blood spilling onto the ground around her body.
William Schroeder is walking to class, taking a shortcut through the throng of protestors, when the gunfire starts. He's attending Kent State on an ROTC scholarship and has not participated in any protest, but the bullet that kills him doesn't care. It enters his back and shatters a rib, sending fragments of bone and metal out a small hole in his left shoulder.
The men of Company A stand beside Troop G, also firing at the students. Guardsman Robert James fires once into the air, then quickly ejects the remaining seven cartridges. He doesn't trust himself with a loaded firearm in this confusion.
As he unloads his weapon into the crowd with semi-automatic speed, Guardsman William Herschler suffers a mental breakdown. Later, as he is driven to the hospital to be treated for hypertension, he will repeat a simple refrain, over and over: "I shot two teenagers. I shot two teenagers."
Donald McKenzie runs from the guard. He's about 250 yards away, but is shot in the neck. The bullet strikes his jawbone and exits through his cheek.
One hundred yards away, Dean Kahler is shot in the side. The bullet tears through his flesh and slams into three vertebrae, paralyzing him for life.
Fourteen-year-old runaway Mary Ann Vecchio kneels beside the body of Jeff Miller. As the gunfire ends, her anguish fills the silence. She turns to the crowd, crying out in horror. John Filo captures the girl in his viewfinder and snaps the picture for which he will soon win the Pulitzer Prize.
The survivors of May 4 remember these 13 seconds in post-traumatic detail, recalling smells, texture and sound as if it had happened moments ago. That gunfire echoes across time, returning them to that day when they least expect it. Each has their own theory about how and why the shootings occurred.
Who Really Burned Down the ROTC Building?
By Saturday evening, May 2, it was no secret that the Kent State protestors planned to torch the ROTC building. The structure was a symbol of a corrupt administration, bent on invading sovereign countries for political gain. It was the protestors' primary target.
At around 8 p.m., a group of several hundred demonstrators converged on the ROTC building. To their surprise, it was unprotected.
"The Kent State Police Department was located in Kent Hall at the time," explains Alan Canfora, who was among the arsonists that night. Kent Hall is less than a quarter mile from the ROTC building. But for the next hour and a half, the police did not attempt to stop them from burning the place down.
They broke the windows. Someone set fire to the curtains, hoping it would spread. Another person dipped a rag in gasoline, lit the cloth, then tossed it into a window. Try as they might, though, the fire wouldn't catch. Canfora compares the effort to a Three Stooges routine. Police could have stopped them easily.
"Why, on this evening, was the building left unprotected? I find that to be very suspicious."
Student activist Steve Sharoff was later interviewed concerning his involvement in the protests. A transcript of that conversation can be found in the files of Charles Thomas, who once worked for the National Archives. His notes are kept by the Special Collections department at the Kent State library. It's not clear who interviewed Sharoff, but the tape of the conversation was saved by Thomas.
"Throughout all this time, there was not one policeman around, and this was rather a paradox because before, the first signs of anything, the whole campus police force was there," says Sharoff. "And all of a sudden people are burning down a building and no campus police whatsoever."
"The police didn't come?" asks a separate interviewer on a different tape, questioning student James Woodring.
"No, nobody," answers Woodring. "I just can't believe that nobody knew what was going on down there … with that many people standing there yelling."
Only after a local fire crew responded and students began cutting into the fire hoses did the university police get involved. At 9:17, deputies from the Portage County Sheriff's Office assisted them. The police shot teargas into the crowd, pushing the demonstrators back to the commons behind the building. At that time, what remained of the small fires inside the ROTC building were extinguished and the firemen left.
Alan Canfora returned a half hour later with around 2,000 protestors, hoping to finish what they started. But the ROTC building was already engulfed in flame.
"When we were chased away, the fire was out," says Canfora. He believes law enforcement actually set another blaze. He points to an incident involving provocateurs from the FBI's counter-intelligence program that occurred three days later. Agents in Tuscaloosa, Alabama later admitted their role in starting a fire inside an ROTC building there on May 7.
After the ROTC fire, the Ohio National Guard took control of the city. Canfora feels the fire was set on purpose so the city would be forced to turn over its security to federal authorities — the first step in a series of machinations orchestrated from the highest levels of the state and federal governments to put activist students in front of anxious guardsmen and make an example of them for the rest of the nation.
"Governor Rhodes and President Nixon — I think it goes all the way to the top," Canfora says. "I believe it's possible that someone working for the government finished the job we had started. I think the guardsmen were manipulated by Rhodes and Nixon. I believe the triggermen were victims, too."
Reached at his home in Oregon, Joseph Lewis says he agrees with Canfora's theory.
"By some manipulation of events, this was Nixon's attempt to stop dissent in America," claims Lewis. "And Governor Rhodes went happily along with it."
Even Dennis Breckenridge, the Troop G sergeant on May 4, feels the National Guard were used as political pawns, but he notes that the activists made it easy.
"Rhodes was an asshole," Breckenridge says. "A Gestapo. We shouldn't have been there. But [the protestors] burned the building down. We got called because the ROTC building was symbolic. But I didn't care about a building. I didn't care about any of it. I just wanted to go home."
Still, no student was ever prosecuted for the ROTC fire. The FBI later claimed it was set by high-schoolers on LSD.