This article originally appeared in the November 20, 2016 edition of History News Network.
C. D. "Gus" Lambros was the staunchest defender of the Ohio National Guard during the first few years after the killings at Kent State University. He successfully defended three of the shooters during the 1974 criminal trial, as well as Sergeant Myron Pryor. Pryor was not indicted after a book by Peter Davies accused him of launching a murderous conspiracy at Kent State.
Now, Lambros's granddaughter's husband, John Fitzgerald O'Hara, an associate professor with the American Studies and Writing Program at Stockton University in Galloway, New Jersey, has written the first thoughtful, independent analysis of the evidence since my own book was published in 1990.
The title of O'Hara's article, "The Man Who Started the Killings at Kent State," is a twist on my own chapter on the shootings, which ended: “Of course, no one was willing to confess. Which is understandable. After all, how would you like to go down in history as the man who started the killings at Kent State?”
O'Hara believes the Guardsmen were not innocent, but also says that Davies and Pryor's other accusers are overlooking exculpatory evidence. O'Hara particularly takes to task Davies and wounded survivor Alan Canfora, who once described Pryor as a beady-eyed, bald barbarian who now resides in Hell. As O'Hara points out, the evidence against Pryor "was never airtight or beyond a reasonable doubt."
O'Hara argues: “First, neither [Pryor] nor anyone else should be solely blamed for such a terrible event without a sober consideration of evidence. Second, pinning the shootings exclusively on Pryor may oversimplify the historical event.”
O'Hara feels that an assumption that Pryor was guilty “occludes other important lines of analysis which might point to other nefarious individuals and forces at work. This may lessen our ability to find a different culprit, or to recognize degrees and responsibilities spread among many individuals and groups, guardsmen and protestors, military and political leaders . . . Truth and justice with respect to Kent State remain important; however, neither is served by passing judgments unqualified by contradictory accounts and evidence.”
In making his case, O'Hara concedes that a famous photograph depicting Pryor standing several feet in front of the firing squad, intently pointing his pistol, may implicate Pryor as a shooter "despite his own assertion that the weapon was neither loaded or fired." Then, contradicting this conclusion, O'Hara cites a controversial 1974 conclusion by Electromagnetic Systems Laboratory (ESL), a forensics photographic lab commissioned by the Justice Department to analyze the evidence. ESL concluded Pryor's weapon was not fired and "that the slide was in fact in the locked position."
Moreover, O'Hara cites the claim by Pryor's superior, Captain Raymond Srp, that he inspected and sniffed Pryor's gun and determined it had not been fired. Pryor also passed three lie detector tests arranged by Lambros. (These tests were never introduced into evidence at the subsequent wrongful death and injury trial which named Pryor as a defendant. Polygraphs are inadmissible in federal courts.)
Without delving into all the nitty gritty details of O'Hara's first two arguments (including the question of whether Srp was friends with Pryor), O'Hara seems to be on much sounder ground when he points out that Pryor "had no official authority to issue an order to fire." The key word here, of course, is "official." As Davies pointed out, the soldiers seemed to have lost faith in their commanders, who marched them onto a practice football field, where they found themselves surrounded on three sides. After the trials, one shooter, Sgt. Lawrence Shafer, bitterly complained the shootings would have never happened if the general did not have "his head up his ass."
The commanding officers seemed to have lost control of the troops, who then started improvising by throwing rocks and gas canisters back at the students. The fact that Pryor was a noncommissioned officer does not negate the possibility that there was an unauthorized order to open fire, whether given by Pryor or someone else. Indeed, a 2010 study by forensics audio expert Stuart Allen, using the most sophisticated technology available today, noted that he enhanced the tape recording of the shooting, a voice could be heard giving such an order.
O'Hara doubts that Pryor gave this alleged order, writing that Pryor "was wearing a gas mask that would arguably muffle any verbal commands that he gave." The main point of his article was that an over-investment in "Myron Pryor as the centerpiece of a murderous conspiracy," makes us forget that there were multiple contributing causes of May 4, 1970, and leads us to overlook other scenarios explaining what actually precipitated the Guardsmen to open fire.
That may be, but it is also true that the other theories of what precipitated the shootings are fraught with far greater weaknesses than the theory that Pryor or another Guardsman issued an order to fire on Blanket Hill.
The possibility that there was a sniper was ruled out early in the investigation, although an undercover FBI photographer and part-time Kent State student was involved in a curious incident before the shooting broke out. As suspicious as his actions were (e.g., placing himself between the Guardsmen and the students and throwing rocks at the students), it is highly improbable that Terry Norman could have instigated the tragedy. Even if Norman fired four shots, as forensic expert Stuart Allen also concluded, it is illogical to believe that the Guardsmen, upon hearing these shots, waited a full 70 seconds before firing into the crowd. Even senior citizens do not have that slow a reaction time, and the Guardsmen, of course, were mostly in their twenties.
Moreover, the other much discussed scenario: that the Nixon White House orchestrated the shootings, requires manipulating so many people and so many events that it seems beyond the scope of human capacity. Certainly, suspicions swirled around the not-so-veiled threats to shoot protestors the day before it actually happened, at a press conference led by Ohio Governor James Rhodes. (At the time of the shootings, the governor was trying to get the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate seat in Ohio. Rhodes was behind in the polls, and preaching "law and order" to the masses.) However, after four and a half decades, no one has been able to produce one iota of evidence that the shootings were pre-planned. Indeed, it is one thing to say that Rhodes, as the Ohio National Guard commander-in-chief, set the tone that made the shootings possible, but quite another to say Rhodes or Nixon (or Nixon and Rhodes) gave any specific orders to kill students.
The spur-of-the-moment order to fire theory at least explains why an estimated half a dozen to ten Guardsmen simultaneously stopped, about-faced approximately 135 degrees, and fired a 13-second barrage at students who, according to a Justice Department report, were too far away to pose even a remote danger to the soldiers. When the shootings broke out, the Guardsmen were also just ten feet away from passing around the corner of Taylor Hall, where they would be beyond the protestor's field of vision. Any rocks would have just bounced off the corner of the building.
The much sought after "smoking gun" may still elude us, but the spur-of-the-moment order-to-fire theory still seems to be the least problematic, and the one most consistent with the eyewitness accounts.
O'Hara's article appears in the August issue of an online scholarly journal, The Sixties. It costs $43 to order it on the Internet, but I saved that by finding a friendly librarian who inter-library loaned the article to me.
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William A. Gordon is a journalist, Kent State graduate (class of 1973), and author of five books, including Four Dead in Ohio: Was There a Conspiracy at Kent State?
(Continued from Part One)
Canfora engaged in quite a bit of psychological projection in his recent attacks of me on both his personal web site and the web site for his "charity." (And when was the last time you've seen a legitimate "charity" engage in personal attacks?)
One of his more deceptive claims was that my book was self-published, which is highly misleading since the book was originally published by Prometheus Books, based in Buffalo. As it so happened, by the time Prometheus allowed the book go out of print, I became an independent publisher myself, bought and sold all of their remaining copies of the hardcover version, and decided to bring out a paperback edition. Despite his insinuations, there is nothing unusual about an author keeping a book in print (visit the Author's Guild "Back in Print" program at
Canfora also misrepresented my credentials, suggesting that I was just a Hollywood tour guide. A more honest individual would have acknowledged that I am actually an author, editor, and publisher of books and databases, not someone who rides around Hollywood giving tours on buses.
Canfora also wants you to believe that I am a frustrated wannabe writer. That is a mighty silly argument considering that Four Dead in Ohio was published two and a half decades ago, and I have gone on to write and/or edit three other books.
While Canfora dismisses my book as "lame" (his one-word review), critics who are not personally threatened by my work gave me reviews most authors would love to have. The Cleveland Plain Dealer thought I did "an excellent job piecing together the events that culminated in the killings and the subsequent cover-ups" and that I put Kent State into historical perspective. The Detroit Free Press called the book "definitive" while Knight Newpapers called it "convincing, well documented and well researched." Paul Aron, the author of Unsolved Mysteries of American History, thought the book was balanced and thorough--"and as close to the last word as anyone has come so far." Choice magazine thought I brought "more clarity to this controversial historical tragedy than any other work to date." It even called the book "as entertaining as the best detective fiction and and as analytical and well documented as the best journalism or scholarship."
Contrary to his claims I curried favor with KSU student government leaders in my senior year at Kent (whatever currying favor is supposed to mean), the president of student government, Bob Gage, appointed me as his special assistant. Note how Canfora makes that appointment sound sinister. And while he criticizes me for interviewing attorneys who represented the National Guardsmen, since when is that, as he suggests, a treacherous act? All it means is that I am not an ideologue and I wanted to hear what the defense attorneys had to say about their trial strategy and their thoughts on what the acquittal meant.
Ironically, while Canfora claims that I have been attacking everyone in sight, I have never engaged in a public feud with anyone else, as Canfora has on numerous occasions. I may have exposed some pretty reprehensible behavior, including Canfora's incessant lying, but I believe that everything should come out, whether it involves with a dishonest wounded student, a dishonest professor, a Guardsman who kills unnecessarily, or anyone else who butchers the truth.
Canfora, as I mentioned, has a long record of (how shall I put it?) not playing well with others. He has fought with targets who have had far less political differences than he and I do. For example, once he even attacked his fellow wounded survivor, Robbie Stamps, after Stamps complained that a member of Canfora's May 4 Task Force came close to physically assaulting former KSU President Carol Cartwright while she stood vigil at the site of one students' death. Canfora, ever the confrontationalist, defended that student's behavior and actually lectured his "blood brother" Stamps for supporting a more civilized approach.
Canfora also feuded with Greg Rambo, another student who helped get the Guardsmen prosecuted; Laurel Krause, fatality Allison Krause's younger sister, who wanted to work with him to videotape eyewitness testimony; university administrators like Dr. Faye Biles, who defended the university's insistence on building a gym annex over a significant chunk of the shooting site; and former KSU President Michael Schwartz, who did not appreciate Canfora's oft-repeated threats to shut down Kent State if he did get the exact size memorial he wanted (Schwartz called him a "ruthless ax-grinder"). Then of course, there are the Guardsmen themselves, whom Canfora regularly characterizes as a "death squad" hell-bent on murdering innocent students.
Canfora has also fought with several other researchers, including the late Charles Thomas, whom Canfora once denounced as a charlatan. After Thomas died Canfora actually had the chutzpah to announce Thomas' death--something he also did for another nemesis, Guard Colonel Charles Fassinger.
Regarding the parents of the dead students: far from condemning me, most of them have on several occasions expressed their appreciation for everything I did for them. The only ingrate among the victims is Canfora, who acts as if May 4 is his personal domain and that he and only he can dictate how May 4 is remembered.
In Canfora's world, there is no "agree to disagree" principle. It always has to be his way and if he does not get his way, he will lash out at you. Even some of his fellow activists complain he acts like the "dictator of May 4."
In addition to trying to smear me on both his personal web site and the web site of his so-called "charity," Canfora even attacked me on a Facebook page after I asked a simple question about a fatality's living situation. I asked the question only because I suspected a screenwriter had it wrong. This was an another unprovoked attack that seemed not only contrived but driven by his own hatred of anyone who poses a threat to his being at the center of attention.
In fact, this feels more like a petty, pointless fight not over May 4 but who gets to enjoy the spoils of May 4. At stake are movie rights, lecture fees, and recognition and publicly from historians, newspeople, and documentarians. How else can one explain why Canfora been so consistently irrational and utterly ruthless in trying to destroy his competition? How else does one account for his hysterical, over-the-top attacks on someone who is not only sympathetic to the very victims he pretends to represent, but who has consistently and more thoroughly documented the injustices done to the twelve other victims?
Coincidentally, I discovered Canfora's attacks on me on the same day the 66-year-old celebrated the birth of his first child. One would think that a time like that his heart would be filled with love and joy, and not with thoughts of revenge and destroying his competition.
The question of who burned the Army ROTC building at Kent State two nights before the May 4, 1970, killings has always been one of the Kent Affair’s unsolved mysteries. That act of arson, as I wrote in my book, Four Dead in Ohio, was “the one act of violence that resulted in the calling-out of the National Guard. If there had not been a fire, the Guardsmen would not have come onto the campus and the students might not have been killed on May 4.”
Until now only one person, a high school student named George Walter Harrington, who was visiting his brother Jim that night, has been positively linked to the fire. We now know the identity of two other men. One of them outed himself in an online video supporting a Kickstarter campaign to complete an authorized documentary of Devo, the New Wave group that formed after several of its members witnessed the May 4, 1970 shootings. "Jerry Casale, the son of a Kent State English professor, and Bob Mothersbaugh of Akron were two of Devo's founding members."
In the preview tape, Mothersbaugh actually admitted on tape: “I helped burn the ROTC building down.” The confession can be heard at www.kickstarter.com/projects/1409838010/authorized-devo-documentary-film/posts/278030.
Mothersbaugh has never been mentioned before in any previous account of the tragedy. He did not elaborate on his role, or about the roles of others who tried alongside of him.
Mothersbaugh is not the only name that has recently surfaced. A not-yet-published book, “Fortney Road,” by Jeff C. Stevenson, about a Christian cult, devotes an entire chapter to the late Thomas "Aquinas" Miller, a drug addict who was not a student at Kent at the time, but who was nevertheless one of the most visible protestors that weekend.
Miller was prominently featured in a Life Magazine photo as the protestor who lost it after the shootings and dipped a black flag in the blood of the slain Jeffrey Miller and sprayed it on other students. Chapter 13 of the manuscript, which quotes what Tom told his younger brother John, reports that on May 4 Tom admitted he, along with two of his companions provoked the soldiers and that Tom Miller even screamed “at the top of my lungs: “Shoot me! I’m a helpless woman. I’m a child! Shoot me! I was referring to the My Lai massacre.”
The brother, John Miller, also quotes Tom as saying “he was among the group that set the ROTC building on fire.” The manuscript does not come out and say who accompanied Tom on the night of May 2, 1970, but it makes clear that on May 4 Miller was joined at the hip with two of his closest friends and fellow members of the “Kent Krazies,” Alan Canfora and Tom Grace. Canfora and Grace were also friends of Jim Harrington. Both Canfora and Grace were wounded by the National Guard. Miller, who later converted to the Christian cult, felt he was the one who deserved to die.
The revelation raises renewed questions about whether Canfora and/or Grace also were involved in the arson. Canfora, in particular, appears to be still covering up other crimes and testified falsely about his role that weekend. At the 1975 wrongful death and injury trial, Canfora testified falsely under oath that he was not even present at the building that night. However, he has since admitted he was, and in a 1979 interview for the Burr, the school yearbook, Canfora proudly told reporter Eric Kosnac that he was "in the thick of things” that weekend and was surprised he was only indicted for second degree rioting.
This blog is written by William A. Gordon, a Kent State alumnus and the author of "Four Dead in Ohio" and three other books. It offers commentary on the still unfolding developments in the Kent State shooting case.