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Families still seek answers in 1970 Kent State slayings

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Families-still-seek-answers-in-1970-Kent-State-slayings

Russell Miller, brother of slain KSU student Jeffrey Miller, and Florence Schroeder, mother of William Knox Schroeder, attend a memorial ceremony on the Kent State campus.

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KENT, Ohio - Forty years after her daughter became a milepost in America's journey through anger and chaos, Doris Krause sat in a second-floor room in this college town and waited for truth to climb the stairs.

"I wonder if anyone will ever own up to anything," she said.

It was 40 years ago today that Allison Krause, 19, a freshman at Kent State University, was one of four students killed in a 13-second volley of gunfire by National Guard troops sent to quell anti-war demonstrations on campus.

They killed Jeffrey Miller, who had been throwing rocks and insults. They killed Allison Krause, who, a day earlier, slid a blossom into a guardsman's rifle barrel and told him, "Flowers are better than bullets." They killed Sandra Lee Scheuer, a speech-therapy student crossing campus after classes were canceled. They killed William Knox Schroeder, a former Eagle Scout and ROTC member.

In a sense, they killed William Perkins' youth, and he was among the guardsmen, holding a rifle on the hillside, his innocence lost in a crackle of gunfire and a haze of smoke.

"Those were just kids our age, and we were forced to be there," he said from his home near Akron.

The shooting sparked student strikes around the nation, closed colleges, flooded Washington with protesters. Kent's students finished the academic year by mail. Some, like Lois Silverman Bernstein, never returned. She transferred to University of Pittsburgh.

"We all felt so violated - just thinking about the lives that were lost, what those people could have done, what they could have been," she said. Ms. Bernstein's brother was married to Ms. Scheuer's sister. Sandy was a regular guest at the Silverman home.

Like more than 1,000 other Kent State students, Ms. Bernstein was on the common May 4, 1970, when the shooting broke out. After the deadly volley, she left for home, but first called Sandra Scheuer to see if she needed a ride as far as her home near Youngstown.

"No answer," she said.

Her father picked her up at the bus station, put an arm around her, and asked her not to scream. That's how she found out a friend was dead.

The Krause family lived in Churchill, Ohio, just north of Youngstown. Allison was one of two daughters. This weekend, the surviving Krause sister, Laurel, presided over a four-day Kent State Truth Tribunal. The idea was to invite anyone who might know anything - students, witnesses, family members, even ex-guardsmen - to visit borrowed offices above a delicatessen and tell their stories into a camera.

Whether anyone would own up, or even if there remained any owning up to be done, the Krause family could not tell. Two trials - one criminal in which eight guardsmen were cleared of wrongdoing, another civil, which ended with a settlement for the grieving and wounded - have done little to answer the questions for which Doris and Laurel Krause seek answers.

Official investigations blamed the Kent State shootings on panic, confusion, and bad judgment. Alan Canfora, a protester who was shot in the wrist, said someone ordered the guardsmen to fire. Mr. Perkins said he never heard an order to shoot, that it was a case of confusion and miscalculation.

Doris Krause can't be sure. She'd like some answers.

"I don't think very much of that school," she said. "To this day they've never let me know what happened to Allison. They've never even told me she died."

She learned of her daughter's death from phone calls from reporters. When she arrived at the hospital near here, nobody from the school met her. The closest thing they got to an acknowledgment from the school administration, she said, was an envelope that arrived by mail after the funeral. It was a check, partial reimbursement for the spring semester's tuition, made out to Allison Krause.

As the tribunal opened for business, not everybody in Kent was pleased with the prospect. Mr. Canfora, one of two members of Students for a Democratic Society on campus, is a reference librarian for the Kent State May 4 Center. The Kent library has collected its own oral history with more than 100 witnesses on tape, and he is wary of the latest project to collect evidence.

"She's coming in here and creating a lot of confusion," Mr. Canfora said.

Laurel Krause makes no apologies. She was 15 when she lost her sister and watched her father, Arthur, transform from a comfortably suburban World War II veteran and Westinghouse executive into a crusader who went to his grave still in search of an accounting.

"Our goal is to correct history," she said. "It is our single goal. The history of Kent State is not correct. The history of Kent State in textbooks in America does not give an accurate depiction of what happened."

Possibly, the lack of clarity, the lack of agreement on who really owns the history of Kent State, is at root of the disagreement over the tribunal. Ms. Krause said 50 participants had registered to come in and give statements on videotape.

The taping is being done by Emily Kunstler, daughter of the renowned radical lawyer William Kunstler. Greetings are handled by Jennifer Schwartz Wright, a cousin of the Krauses who was 10 months old at the time of the shootings. Her 4-year-old daughter, Allison, is named for the cousin she never knew.

One of those unlikely to climb the stairs with his story is Mr. Perkins. He was 24 at the time of the shootings. He was also one of eight guardsmen later charged by a federal grand jury, and ultimately cleared by the courts. To this day, he lives 15 miles from the campus. He has returned three times, he said, looked around, contemplated the day, and gone home.

"Before this situation happened, the kids were so nice to us and we never had any problems," he said.

The guard was called into town the preceding Friday, after Ohio Gov. James Rhodes promised to "eradicate" the violence that had spilled into the town where windows were smashed.

Mr. Perkins had just returned from riot duty in a Cleveland neighborhood. The students he met in town, he said, charmed him. "They were the nicest people. They would sit and talk to us about the war in Vietnam. Of course, we had nothing to do with the war in Vietnam. The girls would bring us flowers. They were just young students. We were their age and we got along great," he said.

The abrupt change came midmorning May 4. Guardsmen made a long loop across a football practice field, pushing back students with tear gas.

Mr. Canfora said the students had become enraged after several young people were cut by bayonets. The guardsmen knelt and pointed at the students, did not fire, then marched up a what is called Blanket Hill as students gathered in a parking lot below.

That was when guardsmen spun around, seemingly in unison.

"The reason we all turned around was we heard two gunshots. I honestly can tell you I don't think it came from our ranks," he said.

Twenty-eight guardsmen opened fire on the students below.

Mr. Perkins said he fired five times into the air, convinced that was what the others were doing. It was only after the shooting stopped that he realized some of his comrades had pointed at the students. In all, investigators later concluded 67 shots were fired.

"It was not panic," Mr. Perkins said. "I don't know. We got into a situation. They tried to remove us from being there and that's what happened. Push came to shove and you can fill in the blanks."

When the firing subsided, Mr. Perkins said he saw Jeffrey Miller lying face down in the parking lot driveway. He had been hit in the face.

"You know what?" Mr. Perkins asked. "Those are kids, just like me."

As the weekend wore on, a few more people climbed the stairs to the office above the delicatessen, but if Mr. Perkins was one of them, he did not announce himself. He looked over the campus a week or so earlier, he said.

Would he come on May 4?

"If I do," he said, "I'd surely not tell them who I am."

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Dennis B. Roddy is a reporter at the Post-Gazette.

Contact Dennis B. Roddy at:

droddy@post-gazette.com

or 412-263-1965.

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