Stonewalled

A year after the Columbine murders, agonizing questions remain about the attack, the police response, and a sheriff under siege.

"Our goal throughout the Columbine investigation has been to ascertain the most accurate information possible and to present it to you and the public in order to help bring this tragedy to some closure...We all share the same objective: To determine as accurately as possible how the attack on Columbine was planned and carried out."

The letter didn't placate Brian Rohrbough. He says the sheriff is mistaken if he thinks the families' questions only concern how the attack took place, and he bristles at the word "closure."

"There is no such thing as closure, or any desire for closure," he declares. "It's our kids, and we don't want to put them behind us. We're not trying to relive April 20; everyone's accepted that their kids are gone. But everyone wants to know why it happened, if it could have been prevented, should it have been handled differently -- and, most important, what can we do right this minute to keep it from happening again? We're not getting those answers."

Gun-shy: Time's photo of Undersheriff John Dunaway and Sheriff John Stone posing with the murder weapons is being used as a flier for the recall effort.
Gun-shy: Time's photo of Undersheriff John Dunaway and Sheriff John Stone posing with the murder weapons is being used as a flier for the recall effort.

Details

The Columbine Reader: Selections from Westword's reporting on the murders.

With the release of the sheriff's final Columbine report still weeks, if not months, away, there's little prospect of closure soon for anyone who wants those answers. And many of the toughest questions about Columbine won't be addressed in the report. Undersheriff John Dunaway describes it as "an executive summary of the entire investigative effort," which will present a scrupulous timeline of official actions but won't attempt to evaluate the performance of the emergency response teams or stray into discussion of possible accomplices. Despite the fact that investigators say they've found no evidence to date anyone other than Klebold or Harris was directly involved in the attack, the case remains open, much of its findings sealed from public view.

"The sheriff's office is under no obligation, legally or otherwise, to produce a public report," Dunaway notes. "But because of the nature of this crime and the attention it has generated, we have felt some obligation to report to the public at large what occurred."

Dunaway maintains that there has never been "a 'leak' of any confidential information that was done intentionally by any member of the sheriff's office. This office is open and forthcoming with the media, to our own detriment, it would seem."

From the outset, the sheriff's office has blamed much of the confusion surrounding the investigation on the press. It was the media, after all, that ran with sketchy, unconfirmed stories about bogus suicide notes, the Trenchcoat Mafia and the killers' supposed affiliations with goths and hate groups, a mythology about the massacre that persisted months later ("Doom Rules," August 5, 1999). It was the media that stirred up the families' animosity with secondhand revelations and phony exclusives. ("They had that information for months," Dunaway says of the recent Post article. "Yet it's structured in a way that looks like these bozos over here at the sheriff's office can't keep anything confidential.") It was the media that created the "perception" that the final report has been delayed again and again, by running overly optimistic stories about its pending release. And it was the media, in the form of Time, that bamboozled Sheriff Stone and offered the grieving families, as a sick Christmas present, the spectacle of Harris and Klebold showing off their stash of weapons and their hit list.

But blaming the messenger ignores the extent to which media outlets have taken their cues from the sheriff's office -- often from Stone himself. In the first weeks of the investigation, Stone repeatedly aired his conviction that Harris and Klebold didn't act alone, and then obligingly named suspected accomplices on national television. Reports that the investigation was nearing completion came out of the sheriff's office as early as last August, only to be "corrected" by subsequent reports (many phases of the investigation, Dunaway says, didn't wind down until January). And regardless of the actual arrangement, it was Stone's decision to provide access to sensitive materials to Time, thereby incurring the wrath of Columbine parents.

The ongoing public-relations fiasco has prompted several parents of the murdered and wounded to throw their support behind the recall effort. Some have accused Stone of grandstanding, using the tragedy for his own political gain, and worse. His most virulent critics predict the final report will be a whitewash, skirting ugly questions about how the sheriff's office handled previous complaints concerning Eric Harris and what might have been done to save more lives once the shooting began.

"There are 9,000 rumors about Columbine, and the police report, unfortunately, is one of them," said Randy Brown, the Columbine parent who launched the recall campaign, at a recent gathering of recall supporters. "Don't expect the truth."

Dunaway says Brown, whose son Brooks was labeled a possible suspect by Stone, is pursuing his own agenda with the recall. But the sheriff's right-hand man seems baffled by the outrage of other parents. "I feel our handling of this case has been as clean and objective as it could have been," he says. "No law-enforcement jurisdiction in the country has ever dealt with a case like this."

He adds, "We have communicated extensively with the families at every turn. But this thing has taken on a life of its own. We don't have anyone to prosecute, other than the people who helped them obtain the guns. There's nobody to put in the dock for the murders of all these children. Not having somebody to blame, except the killers themselves, [the families] turn and attack the very people who have tried to help them."

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