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Stonewalled

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

Rohrbough says that Jeffco investigators promised to meet with him at any time and answer all of his questions, but have since blown him off repeatedly. "They don't want to talk to us," he says simply. "They have a ton of things to hide. They don't want to tell the families what happened to their kids, but a lot of them have started to put it together."

For months Rohrbough and his ex-wife, Sue Petrone, have tried to recover the clothes their son was wearing when he was murdered. Their reasons are both personal and forensic; Rohrbough is convinced that "the clothes tell the story they don't want to tell," the story of how Dan died. At first investigators told them the clothing was a biohazard, he says. When they checked with medical labs and presented evidence to the contrary, the investigators still refused to give them the clothing, citing the open nature of the case. At one point, one of the lead investigators "got nasty" with them, yelling at Sue.

"I'd sensed before that there were a lot of problems," Rohrbough says, "but that was the first time I realized that we're the enemy. It was never Klebold and Harris. It's us."

Total recall: Judy and Randy Brown complained to the sheriff's office about Eric Harris a year before the shootings. Now they want the sheriff gone.
Total recall: Judy and Randy Brown complained to the sheriff's office about Eric Harris a year before the shootings. Now they want the sheriff gone.
Total recall: Judy and Randy Brown complained to the sheriff's office about Eric Harris a year before the shootings. Now they want the sheriff gone.
David Rehor
Total recall: Judy and Randy Brown complained to the sheriff's office about Eric Harris a year before the shootings. Now they want the sheriff gone.

Blowing Smoke and Pointing Fingers

Given the pandemonium of April 20 and the emotional television coverage that followed, it was probably inevitable that the Columbine investigation would be mired in controversy from the start. Law-enforcement officials were quick to praise the multi-agency response to the tragedy, but no amount of kudos could defuse the images of carnage replayed over and over on the nightly news, or answer the questions those images raised.

Two days after the attack, Attorney General Janet Reno assured reporters at a Jefferson County press conference that Columbine was emerging as "a textbook case of how to conduct an investigation, of how to do it the right way." Reno's view was soon seconded by that of Los Angeles police chief Bernard Parks, who'd sent officers to observe the investigation process hours after the shooting stopped and later wrote a warm letter of thanks to Sheriff Stone, praising "the professionalism of all the involved personnel" and "their bravery and supreme dedication to duty."

But such endorsements, from the folks who brought you Waco and the chronic scandals of the LAPD, offered scarce comfort. They were at odds with what the nation had seen on TV: the massing of hundreds of police officers outside the school while scores of terrified students were still trapped inside; the painfully methodical, four-hour sweep of the building by SWAT teams while gravely wounded victims, including teacher Dave Sanders, fought for their lives without medical help; the slow-motion rescue of a wounded Patrick Ireland -- more than two hours, it turned out, after the shooters had killed themselves. Over the next 36 hours, as the bodies of the dead remained in the school while bombs were removed, the questioning began: How could law enforcement be so powerless to counter the rampage of two teenagers? What the hell happened?

People looked to Sheriff Stone for answers. And that's when the questions started to multiply.

John Stone had been Jefferson County's sheriff for less than four months when Columbine came crashing down on his shoulders. Although he'd worked nineteen years as a police officer in Lakewood, he'd been out of law enforcement for more than a decade, serving as a county commissioner, when the retirement of Ron Beckham prompted him to run for the sheriff's job in 1998. Stone emerged victorious in a three-way Republican primary and then easily beat an independent opponent in the GOP-dominated county, despite reservations among line officers about his long hiatus from police work.

Accustomed to speaking his mind as a commissioner, Stone had difficulty adjusting to the crisis that was Columbine. On April 20, while parents waited in agony for news of their kids, he was all too eager to share what he thought he knew, telling reporters there were seventeen "confirmed" dead and reports of up to 25 bodies. Over the next few days Stone and his top commanders stumbled again and again, referring to three youths in trench coats who'd been picked up near the school as suspects when they'd already been cleared; suggesting that surveillance videos from the school would show the gunmen firing at students when the tapes hadn't yet been analyzed; claiming that sheriff's deputies had prevented Klebold and Harris from escaping.

Crossed signals with the investigation team prompted Jefferson County District Attorney Dave Thomas to declare on national television that an arrest was imminent. At one point, Stone was obliged to hold a midnight press conference to correct statements he'd made hours earlier.

Stone soon opted to give fewer interviews and let his able public-information officers handle most of the questions. He's become even more cautious about talking to the press since the Time article, which was accompanied by an ominous photo of Stone and Undersheriff Dunaway, in full dress uniforms and latex gloves, posing with the guns Klebold and Harris used to murder their classmates. "He's been pretty reluctant to do any interviews after the Time flap," says sheriff's office spokesman Steve Davis. "He's a little gun-shy." (Stone declined Westword's request for an interview, but responded to questions in writing.)

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