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The Lost Command

Sheriff Stone's report says his officers did everything right at Columbine. The evidence tells a different story.

What may have been the defining moment in the history of the Governor's Columbine Review Commission unfolded last month. Consigned to a small meeting room in the basement of the Jefferson County Justice Center, struggling to make sense of the worst school massacre the country has ever seen and faced with an epidemic of lockjaw in the law-enforcement community -- its star act a no-show, other key witnesses abruptly unavailable -- the panel turned to its depleted roster of police experts for answers.

And heard a familiar story.

"When I arrived on the scene, it was chaos," said Mark Campbell, a captain with the Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office, one of numerous police agencies summoned to Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, in the wake of the rampage by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold that left twelve students and one teacher dead. "The first responding officers were outgunned."

Waiting for the facts: Brian Rohrbough and other Columbine parents sued for access to 911 tapes, ballistics data and other evidence gathered in the police investigation.
David Rehor
Waiting for the facts: Brian Rohrbough and other Columbine parents sued for access to 911 tapes, ballistics data and other evidence gathered in the police investigation.

"It was one of the most chaotic things I've seen in my life," said Arapahoe County SWAT officer Bruce Williamson, who participated in the four-hour evacuation efforts. "[The SWAT teams] didn't know where these guys were. Every room they went into was hot at first."

Students who had barricaded themselves in classrooms were so relieved to see rescuing SWAT officers that they latched onto them with viselike grips, noted Robert Armstrong, a former Arapahoe County captain who was one of the first senior officers to arrive at the school. "These students would not let go of the officers," Armstrong said. "They were not able to go aggressively forward."

The commission seemed grateful to get even shreds of fresh information. A panel of criminal-justice and education professionals appointed by Governor Bill Owens last fall to review the government response to Columbine, the thirteen-member group has no subpoena powers. Its ability to ferret out facts about the shootings depends on the voluntary cooperation of those who watched the crisis develop on April 20 and fought to end it. But some of the most crucial participants have been curiously unresponsive to the governor's summons.

For months the commission had eagerly awaited the testimony of Jefferson County Sheriff John P. Stone, whose office was in charge of rescue operations that day and spearheaded the investigation of the slayings. But Stone, besieged by nine lawsuits filed by victims' families accusing his agency of negligence, first accepted the commission's invitation and then declined, saying that the county attorney had advised him against making any comment.

Vince DiManna, the Denver Police Department SWAT captain who helped to organize the initial entry teams at Columbine, pulled out of testifying at the last minute, too, citing similar concerns about possible lawsuits against the DPD. That left the witness table to a handful of officers from Arapahoe County and Arvada, folks who'd participated in the emergency response but had no ultimate command duties -- or threats of litigation -- hanging over their heads.

Stone's absence may have been a source of embarrassment for the committee, but it was a bitter disappointment for Randy and Judy Brown, the Columbine parents who are leading a lonely campaign to recall the sheriff ("Stonewalled," April 13). For weeks the Browns and a handful of volunteers have been haunting the county's supermarkets, seeking petition signatures from passersby who, for the most part, don't want to think about Columbine anymore. Stone has ducked the couple's questions at public meetings and has refused to comment on the recall effort. After months of delays that were curtailed only by a court order, in May the sheriff issued a "final report" on Columbine that was supposed to be the final word on the matter -- and then refused to answer questions about the report, too. Now it appeared he wasn't going to have to answer to the governor's blue-ribbon panel, either.

Instead, the Browns and the commission got an earful from Robert Armstrong, who offered an impassioned defense of the command decisions at Columbine. A florid-faced, no-nonsense career officer, now a top administrator at the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, Armstrong marched through a prepared statement that bristled with bombast, conundrums and outright contradictions. One moment he stressed that the first priority was to establish a perimeter so that "this incident will not leave Pierce Street. That was my order...that we've got to contain this thing." The next he was talking about how desperately the command wanted to get officers into the school: "We fully realized we must engage these suspects."

Armstrong praised the "uncommon valor" of DiManna and other SWAT officers who put together an entry team even though they didn't have the proper equipment, hitting the school without full-body armor or helmets. At the same time, he conceded, it wouldn't do to have these officers going off half-cocked, not with all the reports of snipers, gas leaks and bombs everywhere: "We couldn't rush SWAT down the hall and set off additional bombs."

By the time Armstrong addressed the death of science teacher Dave Sanders, Randy Brown could hardly contain himself. Sanders had been shot while trying to direct kids to safety; he died, still awaiting medical aid, more than three hours later. Yes, Armstrong said, the top brass at the command post had taken notice of a sign, "1 BLEEDING TO DEATH," posted in the window of the science classroom where Sanders lay wounded. But the command was worried that it might be a trick; the question was, who put that sign there?

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