The tape was released Tuesday by Alan Canfora, 58, one of nine students wounded in the 1970 shootings. He played two versions of the tape — the original and an amplified version — in which he says a Guard officer issues the command, "Right here! Get Set! Point! Fire!"
Background noise on the recording made it difficult to understand as it was played for students and reporters in a campus theater Tuesday. The word "point" is clear, followed by the sound of shots being fired. There is no indication on the tape of who said the word.
The tape was given to Yale in 1979 for its Kent State archives by an attorney who represented students in a lawsuit filed against the state over the shooting. Canfora said he found out about it six months ago while researching the shooting.
Some said they wondered what would be achieved by releasing the tape so many years after the shootings.
"I think both sides were at fault," said Brett Wilson, 18, a Kent State student. He said students were trying to provoke the Guard and Guardsmen overreacted with deadly force.
But Canfora said he will turn over copies of the tape to federal and state officials with an appeal to reopen the investigation over how the firing began.
"We're hoping for new investigations and new truths," he said. "We need truth, we need healing."
He said voice analysis might help determine who was speaking on the tape.
"I think we'll know who gave that order," Canfora said.
After an initial investigation, the case was reopened in 1973 when a grand jury indicted eight Guardsmen. They were acquitted of federal civil rights charges the next year.
Larry Shafer, a former Guardsman who said he fired during the shootings and was among those charged, told the Kent-Ravenna Record-Courier newspaper on Tuesday that he was unaware of the tape and that "point" would not have been part of a proper command.
"I never heard any command to fire. That's all I can say on that," Shafer, a Ravenna city councilman and former fire chief, told the newspaper. "That's not to say there may not have been, but with all the racket and noise, I don't know how anyone could have heard anything that day."
The FBI, which investigated whether an order had been given to fire, said at the time it could only speculate. One theory was that a Guardsman panicked or fired intentionally at a student and that others fired when they heard the shot.
Canfora said the reel-to-reel audio recording was made by Terry Strubbe, a student who placed a microphone at a windowsill of his dormitory that overlooked the anti-war rally. Strubbe turned the tape over to the FBI, which kept a copy.
Stan Pottinger, who helped prosecute the Guardsmen in the early 1970s as an assistant attorney general with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department, said Tuesday from New York that he doubts anything was overlooked then.
He said he could not specifically recall the Strubbe tape, but said audio recordings and film were carefully studied.
Pottinger said justice was served.
"The Guardsmen were acquitted, the case was closed, the families expressed enormous gratitude for the reopening of the case and that was it," he said.
Canfora said only a small portion of the tape was reviewed during various investigations.
Scott Wilson, a spokesman with the FBI in Cleveland, said Tuesday that he was unaware of any request to look into the matter. The Ohio National Guard had no comment on the tape's release, spokesman James Sims said Tuesday.
Strubbe, who still lives near Kent, keeps the original tape in a safe deposit box, said Canfora, who heads a nonprofit organization at Kent State that leads a candlelight vigil every May 4 to mark the anniversary of the shootings. Friday will mark the 37th anniversary.