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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.

According to Dunaway, Time writer Timothy Roche first approached him about doing an article on the "human impact of this experience" -- how the tragedy had affected the investigators as well as teachers, students and others. So that no confidential details of the investigation would be released inadvertently, Dunaway monitored Roche's interviews with his officers.

"This guy was here probably a week or more interviewing key people," Dunaway says. "I sat in on those interviews, and the questions were perfectly consistent with the nature of the story as he represented it to us. We believed he was going to write a story that would bring closure to the community around this thing."

After most of his interviews were completed, Roche asked to see the Harris-Klebold tapes. Dunaway already had "a hundred requests" from media organizations for the tapes, excerpts of which had been read into the record at a sentencing hearing for one of the teens' gun suppliers in November; under the state open-records law, he couldn't release them to Time without turning them over to everyone else, too. But Roche had a novel pitch, Dunaway says. The reporter told him he wanted to view the tapes, not for their content, but in order to obtain crucial insights into the way the killers thought and acted, so that he could write a better story.

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.

With Stone's blessing, Dunaway and Roche struck a deal. "I told him that if he were allowed to see them, he couldn't reference them in any way," Dunaway says. "He couldn't refer to ever having seen them, because the instant he did that, it would put them in the public domain, and they'd have to be available to everyone. He agreed explicitly to every condition."

Roche went to Kate Battan, the Columbine lead investigator, and told her that the undersheriff had given him permission to view the tapes. "I said, 'I think there may be a misunderstanding here' -- because there was no way on God's green earth I was going to show him those tapes," Battan recalls. "So I called the undersheriff and told him I was a bit confused."

Battan handed the phone to Roche. While she and two other witnesses listened, she says, Roche repeated to Dunaway the conditions he had accepted: "I listened to him say, 'That's right, I'm not going to quote from them, I only want a better understanding of what you guys were going through when you were investigating this.'"

Roche referred questions about his dealings with the sheriff's office to a Time spokeswoman, who simply reiterated an earlier statement that the magazine had violated no agreement. Dunaway acknowledges that the arrangement was an unusual one, but insists that it did exist.

"Frankly, he had our confidence," the undersheriff says. "In thirty years, I had never been burned by a journalist. Think about it. Was there any reason we would have subjected ourselves to this kind of abuse? This caused the whole office a lot of grief."

But Stone's critics say the effort to portray the sheriff and his people as innocent victims of a manipulative journalist won't wash. What shocked the Columbine parents wasn't the possibility that a national magazine might have thrown ethics out the window for the sake of a killer exclusive ("Are you going to burn a source over the largest circulation that magazine has seen in some time? Hell, yes," snaps Kate Battan), but the astonishing degree of access the magazine was granted, "in confidence" or not, to previously off-limits material -- including key details about the massacre itself.

Battan says she was present when Roche reviewed the Harris-Klebold videos. He took notes, she recalls, but he wasn't allowed to pause or rewind the tapes. Another source, however, says Roche went over the tapes several times; the extensive quotation and description of physical details in the final article certainly indicates repeated viewings. It's also clear that Roche obtained extensive information about the rampage that could only have come from the investigators themselves, including the positions in which certain victims' bodies were found and the final actions of the killers in the library. (Battan says she refused Roche's request to see crime-scene photos.) The sheriff's office even provided Time with its cover, a technically enhanced still photo of Harris and Klebold, armed to the teeth, taken from the cafeteria surveillance video. Dunaway explains that the image had already leaked out indirectly, through law-enforcement presentations; Battan says Roche promised not to use the photo on the cover.

The eagerness to cooperate with Time displayed an astonishing lack of skepticism by veteran law-enforcement officials. Basic questions were never asked: Why would a deadline- harried reporter spend hours reviewing materials (and taking notes) that he couldn't use in any way? How could watching Eric Harris recite the names of the "fucking bitches" who never returned his phone calls help the reporter understand what the police were going through? What does all this have to do with "closure" for the community, anyway?

After the article came out, Battan received a phone call from Roche. "He wouldn't say he lied to me, but he didn't deny it, either," she says. "He said, 'Kate, you know how editors are.'"

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