Stonewalled

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

Seduced by the national press, the sheriff has become the poster boy for the campaign to remove him from office.

The First Lie and the Last Breath

Brian Rohrbough knows exactly when people started lying to him about Columbine. It started on April 20, 1999, at 5:30 p.m., when a handful of parents were still waiting at Leawood Elementary School, with faltering hopes, for news of their children.

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.

Details

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

"The first lie was, 'There's another busload of kids coming,'" he says.

For hours Rohrbough had been struggling with a feeling that he was never going to see his son again. Officials' assurances that there were still kids being evacuated rang hollow, and by half-past five he'd had enough. He turned to Sue Petrone and said, "Danny's dead. It's over." A woman standing nearby overheard him.

"Don't give up hope," she said. "There's one more bus coming."

Rohrbough turned to the woman and said, "Have you no decency at all? My son's dead. We've heard there's 25 kids dead in there. And you're going to stand here and lie to me?"

The woman shut up and walked away. Perhaps she meant well; perhaps she merely believed what others were telling her. But Rohrbough is convinced she was lying to him -- knowingly, deliberately, because the truth was simply too terrible. "When people lie to me, I have to know why," he says.

Other parents of murdered Columbine students have channeled their grief and anger into litigation, crusades for gun control or safer schools, religion, books and Web sites and the campaign to build a new library. Rohrbough has been active on several fronts, including the library effort, but a great deal of his energy has been devoted to trying to learn the truth about April 20. He and Sue Petrone and their circle of friends and loved ones have emerged as the official investigation's worst nightmare: a victim's family that isn't satisfied with the official answers and wants to know much, much more.

Publicly, prosecutors and cops have to offer respect, or at least lip-service, to victims' families. Rohrbough has sought to exert the moral leverage of his position to full advantage, using the media to take the sheriff's office to task again and again. During one two-day period after the Time debacle, he estimates he did close to seventy interviews. "It's the only way I have of putting pressure on them to find answers," he says.

No one can take such a public stance without catching some heat as well. Rohrbough has been sharply criticized for taking it upon himself to remove "forgiveness" memorials to Klebold and Harris. But nothing has drawn as much hate mail as his attacks on Sheriff Stone: "Your victim act is wearing thin," one anonymous scribe informed him.

Rohrbough says that he's never considered himself a victim. He is the father of a victim, and he wants to know what happened to his son.

The whole story.

The problem is that the story keeps changing. Recently Rohrbough was intrigued to read in the Rocky Mountain News an account of DA Dave Thomas's visit to Leawood on April 20, clutching a list of thirteen names and steeling himself to notify the families because he "couldn't bear to prolong their agony." As Rohrbough recalls, Thomas informed the group that nobody knew anything for certain yet and then turned things over to the coroner, who asked for descriptions to help identify bodies.

"No one ever officially notified me that my son was dead," Rohrbough says. "We saw it in the newspaper."

In the immediate aftermath, officials maintained that they couldn't remove the dead -- including Daniel Rohrbough, who was slain outside the school -- for more than a day because of all the explosives, including the likelihood that the bodies were rigged with pipe bombs. Nobody talks about booby-trapped bodies any more. "You can't name another crime scene in history where dead kids were left for 36 hours," says Randy Brown.

Bomb squad members have told Rohrbough that the killing power of the explosives has been greatly exaggerated -- that even if the main propane bombs in the cafeteria had detonated, the blast "would not have affected the structure of the building and would have been unlikely to kill many people," he says. Yet public accounts continue to stress that Harris and Klebold came close to setting off an oxygen-devouring fireball that would have killed hundreds.

Early accounts, drawing on passages from Harris's writings, suggested that the killers planned to escape into the neighborhood, crash a plane into a major city, or otherwise spread the carnage somehow. Within a few days, the sheriff's office was downplaying such reports as sheer nonsense. Yet as late as last September, Undersheriff Dunaway told a school-safety convention in Pittsburgh that Harris and Klebold had intended to storm Columbine, then journey into the neighborhood, shooting more people until they committed suicide or died in a firefight with the cops.

Lately the sheriff's office has been eager to dispel the "myths" of Columbine: That Harris and Klebold had help. That they targeted jocks and minorities. That the attack was in honor of Hitler's birthday. That bombs were smuggled into the school on prom night.

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