Stonewalled

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

Some Columbine families wish Stone had curbed his tongue earlier -- particularly Randy and Judy Brown. In the winter and spring of 1998, before Stone took office, the Browns filed several complaints about Eric Harris with the sheriff's department; they even provided investigators with pages downloaded from Harris's Web site in which he discussed assembling and detonating pipe bombs and threatened to kill their son Brooks: "I don't care if I live or die in the shootout, all I want to do is kill and injure as many of you pricks as I can, especially a few people. Like Brooks Brown." But the sheriff's office never contacted Harris's parents or took any action against the teen, who was on probation at the time for theft.

After the shootings, the Browns publicly blasted the sheriff's office for failing to take their complaints seriously. Stone shot back on the Today show, describing Harris's online invective as a "subtle threat" that wasn't prosecutable. Noting that Brooks had told reporters Harris had warned him away from the school minutes before the attack began, he declared the criticisms a "smokescreen."

"Brooks Brown could possibly be a suspect," Stone said. "Mr. Brown, as well as several others, are in the investigative mode."

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.

The Browns were livid. It was the sheriff who was blowing smoke, they declared, trying to cover up his agency's incompetence by casting suspicion on the very people who'd recognized that Eric Harris was dangerous and had tried to get the cops involved. "Every time we brought up the Web pages, he always diverted attention to us," Randy Brown says now. "Sheriff Stone had absolutely no evidence of Brooks being involved. This shows what kind of person he is."

Brooks Brown wasn't the only one to get the Richard Jewell treatment from Stone and his top brass. The sheriff's off-the-cuff sniping at Harris's parents undoubtedly contributed to their reluctance to speak with investigators for months, and his office's willingness to identify other potential suspects by name, including at least one juvenile, appalled defense attorneys. But Dunaway says that his boss's terminology was accurate, that there were plenty of reasons to suspect Brooks.

"This Brown person is telling us that he is in direct personal contact with Harris moments before the killings begin," Dunaway says. "And Harris tells him that he likes him and that he should leave the school. Then he shows up in a class photo with Harris and Klebold, and they're all pointing fingers at the camera, as if they had guns."

The Browns paid for a private polygraph test to establish that their son had no prior knowledge of the attack; he passed. But to this day the sheriff's office has never formally cleared Brooks; Dunaway will only say there's no evidence "at this time" to connect him to the shootings.

"They're the ones who keep talking about this stuff," he says of the Browns. "They're the ones who went to their own polygraphist, but when our investigator asked for the results and the questions, they refused to give us any of that information. To say they were cooperative with the investigation is not correct. They were not cooperative."

"That's a lie," Randy Brown responds. "We spent hours with the police and the FBI. The only reason they wanted the polygraph results was to try to discredit them. All these people care about is their own reputation. They don't care about anyone else at all."

Over the past year the Browns have sought to assemble the paper trail of their contacts with the sheriff's office, only to find much of it missing or denied to them. They have been told there's no record of any incident report stemming from their first complaint about Eric Harris over a broken windshield (Judy Brown says that deputies contacted the Harrises twice about that complaint). They have been told that the Browns themselves insisted that the Harrises not be contacted about the online death threats. (Randy Brown says he asked that the officers not mention Brooks as the source of the information, for fear of reprisals, but strongly urged them to contact Eric's father.) They have been told that John Hicks, the detective assigned to the case, has no record of meeting with them in his office in March 1998 -- a meeting the Browns recall vividly because, they say, two bomb technicians gave them a quick lesson in pipe bombs and Hicks indicated that his office already had a file on Eric Harris.

According to Division Chief John Kiekbusch, many of the "missing" records the Browns have sought were routinely purged or never existed to begin with. Last spring the sheriff's office issued a statement confirming that a computer check in response to the Brown complaints had failed to turn up Harris's prior arrest for theft; "I cannot verify that a computer check on Harris was done or the information produced by such a check," Stone says now.

Judy Brown says she has been told she can no longer contact clerks in the sheriff's office to make public-records requests like any other citizen, but instead must direct her inquiries to a senior administrator, who hasn't returned her calls in weeks. "The Browns are free to speak with any sheriff's office personnel as appropriate to their inquiry or needs," Stone says.

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