Autry dies; police say fire intentional

Abbey Brown

Virginia White sat by and watched as her niece’s vital signs quickly dropped. She waited until all the machines hooked up to Pellville freshman Katie Autry let out an unforgettable beep and read zero.

Autry, 18, died at 7:10 p.m. at Vanderbilt University Medical Center after sustaining third-degree burns and two stab wounds she received in her Poland Hall room, White said.

“(Wednesday) has been horrible for us,” she said. “It has been horrible ever since Sunday morning when we first got the call. When we got to (The Medical Center) we were told she had been stabbed twice, that a towel was wrapped around her neck and that she was badly burned.

“When I got back there and saw her I came unglued and panicked. I wanted to touch her and hug her and tell her everything would be OK … They told us she probably wouldn’t make it.”

White has spent most of her time at Autry’s side since she was transported to Vanderbilt. Wednesday night White, her sister and Autry’s younger sister, Lisa, were by Autry’s side as she died.

“I stayed there until today, until there was no reason to stay there anymore,” White said. “We stayed with her as she died so she wouldn’t be scared.”

On the Hill, campus police and other agencies continue their investigation into the Sunday morning fire that injured Autry.

“I can tell you this, we have determined that this fire was set,” campus police chief Robert Deane said at a press conference Wednesday morning. “It was not an accident.”

University Relations Director Bob Skipper didn’t know the last time there was a murder on Western’s campus.

He said 16 investigators from six different agencies, including Bowling Green Police Department, Bowling Green Fire Department and Kentucky State Police, have looked at evidence from Autry’s room, Poland 214, and have interviewed more than 100 people during their investigation.

Police declined to comment whether there are any suspects in the case.

Skipper said he doesn’t yet know when someone will be charged with in Autry’s death. Skipper said charges “could be anything from murder to manslaughter.”

The door to Autry’s room was locked when firefighters got Autry out Sunday morning, he said.

President Gary Ransdell issued a statement Wednesday night for the first time since Sunday’s fire.

“I am saddened tremendously to hear that Katie Autry has passed away as a result of the injuries she sustained in a fire,” Ransdell said. “First of all, my wife Julie and I want to extend our sympathy and prayers to Katie’s family and friends.”

Since the fire, the front doors to all dorms on campus have been locked 24 hours a day. In Poland, a campus police officer is stationed in the building and extra staff are being placed at the front desk.

Four resident assistants from Poland have quit since Sunday, Skipper said. Their spots are being covered by RAs from other dorms.

“All we can do is beef up security,” said Bob Edwards, vice president for University Relations.

But that isn’t enough for White.

“I do have concerns about the dorms,” she said. “I would not want my daughter going (to Western) right now. I am very angry with the situation. I don’t understand how this could have happened and they not, after four days, have a crime suspect…”

White said she is afraid that if nothing is found out soon that the person who did this to her niece will get away with it.

“Those kids walking around on campus need to be protected,” she said. “As long as the person who did this to Katie is still out there, no one on that campus is safe. They are still wandering around. It will happen again if they get away with this. I’m very upset.”

Students were gathering around 8 p.m. Wednesday to hold what they thought was going to be a hope and prayer vigil for Autry; it soon turned into a service of mourning and remembering.

“All I can do is just picture her smiling face,” said Beth Henry, a freshman from Hendersonville, Tenn. “I always saw her as I was going to work, right there.”

Henry began tearing up as she pointed to the sidewalk in front of Poland where the two passed each other on an almost daily basis.

She and a group of friends sat outside of the dorm sharing stories about Autry and singing along to someone playing a guitar. Lit candles lined the walkway in front of Poland.

“I just want to be with other people during a time like this,” Henry said. “I want to be able to see all the candles and that spot.”

Andrew Howard, a freshman from Antioch, Tenn., said singing and playing his guitar was his way of expressing his feelings about Autry’s death. He said Autry had come to his room a couple times to sing along with him.

“I don’t know how to feel,” Howard said. “It hasn’t really hit me yet. Right now I feel appalled and disgusted. One minute she was here, the next minute she wasn’t.”

Those who attended the service at the bell tower came back with a candle and green ribbon – representing hope and health. Henry said there were about 100 people at the service.

Along with prayers, readings, songs and the lighting of candles, the fire department, campus police and the Bowling Green Police Department all received plaques honoring their service to Poland residents.

Horse Cave senior Dee Maxey said she wishes the campus would come together more often like they did Wednesday night.

“It is sad that it takes something tragic for this campus to become one,” she said. “We should all love and support each other 24/7. It shouldn’t take someone dying for us to realize we all need to care and become united.”

Maxey said in her five years on the Hill she has never felt unsafe until this incident, but she said she feels some of the blame should be placed on her and other students.

“I’ve been in this building several times without showing my ID,” she said of Poland. “… Something could have been done to prevent this from happening. Safety measures could have been increased or just enforced.”

White said the rumor that Autry tried to commit suicide has been very difficult for her and her family.

“Anybody that could have seen her laying in that hospital bed on a ventilator fighting for her life would have known that there was no possible way this girl did this to herself,” she said. “It was a ridiculous statement for any paper or anyone to make.”

Her family has been riding a roller coaster of emotions, White said. At first they thought there was no hope, and then things began to look better.

When Autry arrived at Vanderbilt Sunday, they made incisions down both her sides so her heart and lungs would have room to expand, White said. Doctors told her a surgery to remove all of the dead, burnt skin would also have to be done but that at Autry’s current state she couldn’t be transferred to a surgery room, she said.

“They said her lungs were damaged really bad and that surgery became a secondary problem,” White said. “When they took her off the ventilator to try to move her she couldn’t take it.”

She said the doctors later decided they would have to perform the surgery, and since Autry wasn’t stable enough to be moved to the operating room they decided to bring the operating room to her.

“They did everything they could for that girl,” White said. “They sterilized her room and did surgery in her room. And she was holding her own after surgery and (Tuesday) night she did great. When I went in to see her (Wednesday) morning the swelling in her face had gone down. She looked more like Katie then than she had since she’d been in the hospital.

“We had high hopes of her getting better and then it all changed in a matter of no time,” White said.

She said Autry’s body just couldn’t stand it anymore and began to give up.

But the hardest thing for White to accept is why this happened.

“We thought she would be safe on campus in her own dorm room,” she said. “But she wasn’t.”

Herald reporter Joseph Lord contributed to this report. Reach the reporters at [email protected]