The May 4 Tape: What happens next?

William A. Gordon

A new analysis of the recording of the May 4, 1970 killings at Kent State revealed that an FBI informant fired four shots 70 seconds before the Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire on the students. This came on the heels of an earlier finding that the Guardsmen were told to “prepare to fire.” The question that has to be asked now is: “What is next?” Will there be a new investigation or at least further analysis of the tape? And what should we make of the audio experts’ findings?

First, let us review what the audio experts actually discovered. Using modern scientific techniques, two nationally known audio forensics experts, Stuart Allen and Tom Owens, originally concluded that someone shouted “Prepare to fi–,” six seconds before the Ohio National Guardsmen did. The rest of “Fi” was drowned out by noise, but no one is disputing that the word was “Fire.” Certainly the voice did not tell the soldiers to “fish.”

One of the experts, Stuart Allen, also heard unusual noises 70 seconds before the shootings. After several months of additional study, he reported he could also hear what sounded like a fight and threats to kill someone followed by four shots. Having no foreknowledge of the case, Allen identified the sounds associated with the so-called Terry Norman incident in which Norman, a part-time Kent State student and well-known undercover photographer for the FBI and the campus police, was recognized by students as an informant and then jumped by student Tom Masterson. Prior to the latest analysis of the tape Norman, the FBI and the campus police had all denied he ever fired his gun. Allen’s analysis is the strongest evidence yet that they all lied and covered up the incident.

Some news accounts, particularly the Associated Press’, implied that Norman may have triggered the shootings. That seems highly unlikely. Testimony at the trials established that none of the Guardsmen responded immediately or even fired in Norman’s direction. Instead, they fired in the opposite direction: directly into the crowd. Moreover, none of the Guardsmen, in their statements to the FBI and at the trials, even mentioned seeing Norman at the time. That suggests that the Norman incident was a separate incident that did not force the soldiers’ hands.

In fact, Norman’s significance seems to lie elsewhere. The historical record includes some disturbing loose ends, e.g., why did he position himself between the students and the Guardsmen and throw rocks at the students? Was he acting on his own accord, or was he a provocateur acting on someone’s behalf? Was he trying to provoke an incident, only to have been stopped by protestors and beaten to the punch by the Ohio National Guard?

What happens next? Even though there was no public announcement, Ohio Governor Ted Strickland ruled out an investigation in July, claiming the state did not have the resources to investigate further. The Justice Department, which claims to be reviewing the matter, has been dragging its heels for five months. It still has not even asked to hear the original and best version of the tape recorded by Kent State alumnus Terry Strubbe.

The only action taken so far was a call by Congressman Dennis Kucinich to reinvestigate May 4 in the House government oversight subcommittee he chairs. As a first step, Kucinich posed a series of questions to FBI Director Robert Mueller about Norman’s relationship to the FBI. Basically they are the same questions former Indiana Senator Birch Bayh posed to then-designated FBI director Clarence Kelley at his confirmation hearings 37 years ago. Norman has already admitted he worked with Bill Chapin of the Akron FBI office and Tom Kelley of the Kent State police department. He was taking pictures of protestors so they could be criminally prosecuted after the fact.

Kucinich could perform a public service if he arranged for his subcommittee to hire additional experts to examine the tape. Since experts do not always agree, there really needs to be a scientific consensus of what is on the tape. Unfortunately, confirmation of Allen and Owens’ findings still will not answer who gave the order or why. Right now those seeking answers are really resting their hopes on the possibility that the publicity might prompt a former Guardsman to come forward and tell or sell his story. It happened once before. There is always the possibility that it might happen again.

William A. Gordon (KSU 1973) is the author of “Four Dead in Ohio” and three other books. His web site is