Stonewalled

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

Rohrbough would be more impressed if most of the "myths" they're now debunking hadn't come out of the sheriff's office to begin with. "Their story doesn't work very well," he says. "The fact that they won't release the report really concerns me. They have promised me this report month after month after month."

Declaring the case still open, even though there's no evidence of any third-party involvement, has allowed the sheriff's office to shield many aspects of the investigation from scrutiny -- while satisfying no one. Documents that would otherwise be public, such as the autopsy reports, remain sealed, as the possibility of an as-yet-undiscovered conspiracy lingers in the air. "My sense is that they're trying to save whatever face they can," says one attorney who's had some involvement with the Columbine probe. "By saying the investigation is still open, it doesn't make Stone look like a complete idiot."

Rohrbough believes there may be good reasons to keep the case open. "Did they act alone on April 20? Possibly," he says. "But there's no question other people knew about it."

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.

But what gnaws at Rohrbough, every bit as much as the prospect that possible accomplices have evaded justice, is the official story of the police response at Columbine that day. Over the past year he has talked to numerous eyewitnesses about how the attack unfolded and how rescue teams responded. Many of the accounts contradict the official timeline of the event.

Rohrbough has also seen surveillance video taken in the school commons area during the attack. The tape shows Harris and Klebold advancing, classmates running for their lives, a teacher getting shot in the ankle, two janitors -- "who are, without question, heroes," Rohrbough declares -- using handheld radios to summon help and escorting students to safety. But in the forty minutes of the tape he was allowed to see, from the time Harris and Klebold came in shooting around 11:20 a.m. until their suicides around noon, no police officer appears in a single frame of the video.

"They had the 911 calls from inside the school, the radio calls from the janitors, the eyewitness accounts," he says. "They knew by 11:24 where the shooters were in the school, and they did nothing."

Dunaway says his people have been criticized endlessly for not acting fast enough in a chaotic situation when, in fact, the first team entered the school before 11:45 a.m. "I had made the policy decision, driving to the scene, that if this thing was real -- I was really hoping that it was going to be a senior prank -- that we would make an immediate entry to the school," he says. "I knew that would be contrary to all conventional SWAT tactics, and I authorized that ad hoc team. They were inside within five or ten minutes of receiving that authorization from me."

Unfortunately, he adds, most of the shooting was already over before the SWAT teams arrived on the scene. "We've been beaten up so long and so badly," he says. "All of us here are at the point of saying, 'We did what we did.' We don't make any apologies for it. In fact, we're proud of how we handled that situation. There were dead kids in that incident, but they were killed in the space of a very few minutes, and there are a lot of them who are alive today because of the way we reacted."

Vince DiManna, the police captain who heads the Denver SWAT team, was a member of the first team to go in -- along with five other Denver officers, two from Jeffco and two more from Littleton. DiManna, who had a son and a niece at Columbine that day, says his group was moving as quickly as possible, following the procedures for a "TNT," or tactical neutralization team.

"This was an active shooter response," he says. "We were moving rapidly through the school, but when you get to a door that's locked, you can't just go by. We don't know where the suspects are."

Like Rohrbough, DiManna praises the janitors as the "real heroes" of the day. "They're the ones who saved a lot of kids, locking doors so [Klebold and Harris] couldn't go in, and then going out to find more kids," he says. "It amazed us how many locked classrooms there were."

Soon there were other SWAT teams, funneling through two entry points -- one upstairs, one down, to avoid crossfire situations. But each door had to be opened, safe paths of escape established for the fleeing students. The teams were told that there were up to seven suspects, that they were changing clothes and might be blending in with the kids running out of the building. Although it ended up taking more than four hours to clear the building and reach the library, DiManna insists it couldn't have been done any faster.

"I wish I could have had a crystal ball that said, 'The library, let's go there,'" he says. "These guys were jumping over bombs. The whole purpose of a TNT is to draw their fire so you can end this, either by getting them to drop the weapon or killing them. As it is, we had crossfires set up and SWAT teams raising weapons at other teams coming around the corner."

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