As two Virginia Tech students face charges in the slaying of a 13-year-old girl, their classmates are repeating what they have said following other violent debacles in the last decade: The community is defined not by the horrific crimes themselves, but by the way its people pull together afterward.
Seventh-grader Nicole Madison Lovell's stabbing death last month marks the latest in what seems a disproportionate number of high-profile slayings in a bucolic region anchored by a university known for its engineering and veterinary programs and its Hokies football team. Tech freshman David Eisenhauer is charged with abducting and killing Nicole, and classmate Natalie Keepers is charged with helping plan the crime and illegally disposing of the victim's body.
"A lot of people are saying these students weren't real Hokies," said Arlena Nickle, a freshman marketing and hospitality major from Blacksburg. "This is not how we want Virginia Tech portrayed."
Malik Harmon, a materials science and engineering major from Roanoke who works with Nickle at a small convenience store in the Tech student center, said the incident "doesn't define our community at all." Violent crime happens everywhere, he said, but it just seems to get more attention when it happens on campus or involves college students.
The spotlight on Virginia Tech was brightest in 2007 when a mentally disturbed student shot and killed 32 people on campus before killing himself — the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.
But there have been other tragedies. The year before the mass shooting, an armed robbery suspect shot and killed a hospital security guard and a Montgomery County deputy sheriff near the campus, which was locked down during a manhunt. The gunman, William Morva, is now on Virginia's death row.
Two years after the massacre, a 22-year-old student was decapitated by a classmate who was carrying the woman's head when confronted by police in a campus cafe. That was followed by the 2011 shooting death of a Virginia Tech police officer who was ambushed during a traffic stop by a Radford University student, who then took his own life, and the 2014 strangulation of one Virginia Tech student by another during a date.
"I don't think it has anything to do with Virginia Tech or Blacksburg," sophomore human development major Emily Kilpatrick of Fredericksburg said of the string of violent incidents. "Some people will look at Virginia Tech in a bad way, but it's not like Virginia Tech taught them to do these things."
Students organized a vigil in Nicole's memory — the latest example of how they respond in times of trouble, Harmon said.
"The community kind of came together a bit," he said. "I have a friend who sang at the vigil. I think everybody had some sort of role in trying to make things better."
Danny Purcell, a freshman biology major from Fredericksburg, said students have drawn closer in less public ways as well.
"It's human nature," he said. "We seek the comfort of another person."
Montgomery County chief prosecutor Mary Pettitt said most students fall in the age range for people most likely to commit murder and to be first diagnosed with mental health issues. Many also are away from family support systems for the first time.
"However, the fact that this community is shocked by each of these murders tells you more about the community than the murders do," she said in an email. She said the region is "a place where people not only know their neighbors but they look out for them."
Tech spokeswoman Tracy Vosburgh acknowledged in an email that the community has had "more than its share of tragic events." But she also noted that with 40,000 students, faculty and staff, Virginia Tech is essentially a small city and "must face all the issues, both good and bad, every community must face."
"We are fortunate because our community and our university have a special bond — an enduring relationship that has provided essential support to both," she said.
Alison Kiss, executive director of the Clery Center for Security on Campus, said Virginia Tech "has been one of the leaders in campus threat assessment since the shootings in 2007." She said the Lovell case illustrates the need for students to speak up if they become concerned about a classmate's behavior, although people who knew Eisenhauer and Keepers have said they noticed nothing unusual.
Students said the latest tragedy has been a major topic of conversation on campus. The same is true in the community, said 68-year-old Becky Cox of Christiansburg, the county seat just seven miles south of campus.
Cox had no thoughts on why Tech has suffered so many heartbreaks in recent years, but she alluded to the role that social media might have played in Nicole's case. Authorities have said Nicole might have met Eisenhauer on a popular messaging app, and the girl's father said on a recent episode of "Dr. Phil" that she had been communicating online with older men. David Lovell said his daughter lost her cellphone privileges shortly before Christmas but got them back.
"I think parents are falling short of their job as parents," Cox said. "As long as the child's happy, the parent's happy. That's not how it should be."
Nicole's mother, Tammy Weeks, said the teenager had endured bullying online and at school — a factor that experts said made her particularly vulnerable as she sought affection and acceptance on social media. Weeks said at the vigil that she harbored no ill will toward Virginia Tech, only for the person or persons responsible for Nicole's death.
Eisenhauer and Keepers are being held without bond. A preliminary hearing is set for March 28.