A killing on a quiet campus

RADFORD, Va. - 4.8 seconds.

Chris Clemons' eyes darted to the clock. His team, the Campbell University Fighting Camels, trailed the Radford Highlanders 67-65. He needed to move. Fast. Clemons sprinted down the court and heaved the ball from well beyond the 3-point line. It sank into the net as the buzzer sounded. Campbell beat Radford, 68-67.

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Few witnessed the dramatic end to Wednesday night's game. Although the area was crowded earlier, the wooden bleachers at the Dedmon Center now stood empty. Outside, students complained about the referees and homework and debated weekend plans as they boarded university shuttle buses.

No one acknowledged where they were heading.

The shuttle buses snaked through the dark, winding roads of campus to a vigil for Alexa Cannon, a 20-year-old junior at Radford University who was stabbed to death the week before.

Hundreds packed the Student Recreation and Wellness Center for the vigil. A projector beamed a recent photo of Alexa after a haircut - she flashes a goofy smile, her eyes laughing at the camera. "Even When It Hurts (Praise Song)" by Hillsong United played softly.

Radford - a city of about 17,000 in Southwest Virginia where the last murder was three years earlier and the one before that was eight years ago - finds itself caught between moving forward and memorializing the death of a student, between life and loss.

"People are at a loss, but they've also known exactly how to respond," said George Anderson, a senior pastor at Second Presbyterian Church in Roanoke, Cannon's congregation. "I've heard very few of those stupid but well-meaning idioms like, 'Everything happens for a reason.'

"Those things aren't helpful," the pastor said. "People know their presence is more important than their words."


- - -

It was barely 30 minutes past sunrise on Jan. 24 when the call to police came in. Something had happened at an apartment in the 1200 block of Clement Street, they were told. Please come.

Officers said that when they arrived, they were met at the door by Luisa Cutting, Cannon's 21-year-old roommate. Cutting was covered in blood.

Warrants say Cutting turned around, placed her hands behind her back and said, "Arrest me."

"Tell me what's going on," one of the officers responded.

"I killed her," Cutting replied, according to police.

Cannon was lying dead on the floor inside with stab wounds.

Cutting was arrested and charged with second-degree murder. Caitlyn Scaggs, a Radford University spokeswoman, said Cutting has been placed on interim suspension by the public university. Police have not determined a motive. Cutting will be represented by Blair Howard, the attorney who defended Lorena Bobbitt after she severed her husband's penis in 1993.

Cannon and Cutting, a junior at Radford, were close. They were members of the campus Latino Student Alliance and traveled together last year to Cancun, Mexico. Cannon shared photos with Cutting on her Instagram and Facebook accounts, calling Cutting her "best friend." "Unimaginably she still puts up with me and now we're living together next year . . . love you more Lu and everyone pray that we don't kill each other this year," read Cannon's caption for an Instagram photo of the two that was posted March 28.

The allegation that a friend and fellow student had killed Cannon stunned the campus of about 9,400 students some 275 miles southwest of Washington.

"It could've happened to any of us students," said Diyavian Worrell, a 20-year-old sophomore at Radford.

Karryngton Harrison, a 19-year-old Radford sophomore, said she still can't fathom a student being killed near campus. "No one gets stabbed in Radford; it doesn't feel real," she said.

Anderson, the Roanoke pastor, described it this way: "When you have . . . a high crime area, it can feel like a storm that's not going to let up. This feels more like a volcanic eruption, something that came out of the ground unexpected. It made no sense; it came out of nowhere."

Radford is a small city tucked into the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Parents stroll on the sidewalk with young children, and people roll down their car windows to chat at traffic lights. Open, green pastures with grazing cows lead to Main Street and to the vintage Radford Theatre, the city library and restaurants.

Rachel Thompson, an assistant pastor at Second Presbyterian, noticed an immediate response of "fear, shock and grief" among students at a vigil hosted by the church two days after Cannon was found dead. "It's been hard for young people to wrap their heads around this," she said.

To some, the campus appeared unusually quiet in the days after Cannon's death.

Justin Eubank, a bartender at BT's, a restaurant and popular student hangout across the street from campus, said most students didn't go out the weekend after the incident.

"A lot of students pass by the off-campus apartment building where she was killed on their way to class," he said. "It must have been strange for them to see all the police commotion."

Still, the incident has not sparked significant concerns from students about their own safety. University President Brian Hemphill said that he has "not heard any comments brought directly" to him and that the university viewed Cannon's death as a "tragic, isolated incident."


- - -

Cannon's family wants Radford to move forward. Sam and Cathy, Cannon's parents, said positivity is the best way to honor their daughter's memory. "Love is the only path to true freedom," Cathy Cannon wrote on the back of the program for her daughter's memorial services.

Relatives remembered Cannon as a kind, bubbly teenager. She was diagnosed with epilepsy when she was in middle school. Although her condition made school challenging - she had seizures during class, and classmates sometimes bullied her - Cannon was "fearless," Sam Cannon said.

She was pursuing a degree in psychology at Radford and loved interior design. Her mother said Cannon had a talent for organizing drawers, rooms - just about anything. Her father said she loved to send them photos of her coordinated outfits. On the first day of classes, she sent them a picture. "First Day! I'm ready to go!" she texted with a thumbs up.

Sam and Cathy have learned a lot about their daughter over the past few days. It's comforting to hear stories about how she affected others' lives, they said.

During one vigil, Cathy was overcome with emotion when she heard one of Cannon's friends tell a story from their mission trip to the Dominican Republic.

"They stayed up till 3 a.m. looking at the stars and talking," Cathy said. "I told her to get to bed early, and she didn't listen to me, but now I think, 'Go, Alexa!'

"I'm glad she didn't listen to me and got to be a normal teenager."

On Wednesday morning, Second Presbyterian Church was packed for a memorial service. Most of the mourners were children and teenagers. Some stood in the back of the chapel or sat on the floors of the hallway, craning to see the Cannon family through stained-glass windows. Some recited prayers in hushed tones. Others cried softly into their hands. Radford University officials had a reserved a pew.

"The Cannon family asked that we include Luisa Cutting and her family in our prayers - they need them during this time," Anderson, the pastor, told those in attendance. After the services, people gathered around the Cannon family in the church's reception area. Sam and Cathy Cannon hugged and shook hands for more than an hour.

Cannon was close with her parents and sisters, Emme, 17, and Chloe, 15, who live 40 minutes from Radford, in Roanoke. When she was a child, Alexa gave her mother an old blue handkerchief. "Use this when you get skared," she wrote. Blue was Alexa's favorite color. Those in attendance at a vigil wore blue and carried blue glow sticks during a remembrance walk.

Holly Cline, a professor and chair of the design department at Radford, spoke fondly of Cannon at the vigil, commending her strength. She recalled the time Cannon had a seizure in her office, casually acknowledged it and resumed their conversation. "If she struggled, she didn't let it show," Cline said.

A week after the stabbing, life had moved forward at Radford. Apartments were being shown to students in the building where Cannon was killed. During the vigil at the student center, known as the Bonnie, students elsewhere in the building played pool and watched standup comedians perform. Their laughter echoed into the night, where Sam and Cathy Cannon hugged crying students.

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