The Lost Command

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

Like all myths, the sheriff's version of Columbine isn't entirely fanciful. It is true, as the report claims, that the particular strategy adopted by the police resulted in the safe evacuation of hundreds of students. But that accomplishment must be weighed against the dubious command decisions that essentially turned over the school to Klebold and Harris for what turned out to be more than two hours. That the pair opted to kill themselves less than an hour into the siege rather than continue to massacre at will can be chalked up to dumb luck; perhaps, like everyone else, they expected the cops to arrive any moment.

Much has been made of the sheer size of the sheriff's report, as if loquacity equaled candor. The CD-ROM has been compared to an 800-page book, but sections dealing directly with police actions on April 20 amount to fewer than 150 pages of text, skimpier than your average mystery novel. Passages explaining the command decisions guiding those actions are almost nonexistent. Thanks to Judge Jackson's rulings, though, it's now possible to glimpse some of what is missing -- and begin to understand why it is missing.

There is a point where spin becomes lies, where omission of important facts becomes deception. In the official silence that has descended on the subject of Columbine, there is much that can be learned.

Hot zones: The cafeteria vidowtape caught Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold on their last visit, minutes before the returned upstairs at noon to commit suicide.
Hot zones: The cafeteria vidowtape caught Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold on their last visit, minutes before the returned upstairs at noon to commit suicide.
SWAT officers (evacuating students) didn’t reach the area until almost two hours later — and didn’t take the stairs that would lead them to wounded victims in the libary and science area until 2:30 p.m.
SWAT officers (evacuating students) didn’t reach the area until almost two hours later — and didn’t take the stairs that would lead them to wounded victims in the libary and science area until 2:30 p.m.


The Myth of Instant Death

At the heart of the Columbine report's defense of police actions is the assertion that the killers struck with lightning swiftness, spreading panic and chaos throughout the school, and ended their attack before SWAT officers could arrive. "Within the span of 16 minutes, the gunmen had killed 13 people and wounded 21 others," the report declares.

The statement is false. As a Rocky Mountain News editorial pointed out recently, only the most tortuous interpretation of the word "killed" could make it true, since Dave Sanders was still alive, though gravely wounded, when SWAT officers found him at 2:42 p.m. -- three hours and 23 minutes after the shooting started. Yet even if you remove Sanders from the equation (which the report seems all too eager to do), the statement is still a reach. It's the first volley in a concerted effort to fix the time of death of the other twelve fatalities within the brief period that Klebold and Harris were on the rampage, as if to demonstrate that any speedier response by the rescue teams would have been beside the point.

Because of an unprecedented court ruling, all but one of the victims' autopsy reports remain sealed more than a year after the murders. Without the autopsies, it's impossible to verify the claim that the victims died instantly. Yet there are several reasons to be skeptical of that claim. Close-range shotgun wounds tend to be fatal, but are the autopsy reports so precise that there's no fudge factor whatsoever in the report's statement that Corey DePooter, the last student shot in the library, "was killed at 11:35"?

Such unqualified accounts seem even more doubtful when you consider that several critically injured students survived for hours without medical attention, including Patrick Ireland, who crawled out of a library window only minutes before the police reached Sanders. Whether their recovery would have been substantially aided by swifter rescue efforts is one of those nasty "hindsight" questions the report simply doesn't address.

Legal considerations may have played a part in developing the theory of instant death. Consider the report's treatment of the students killed outside the school, Rachel Scott and Daniel Rohrbough. Scott was killed outside the school's west entrance by the "first gunshots," the report states, and a few moments later, Klebold shot an already wounded, fallen Rohrbough at close range, "killing him instantly."

In their lawsuit, Rohrbough's parents allege that he was shot not just by Klebold, but by an unnamed sheriff's deputy, an accusation Stone has denounced as "outrageous." Whether the allegation of friendly fire will hold up in court is anybody's guess, but Brian Rohrbough claims to have eyewitnesses who dispute the report's account of his son's death and the timeline for when various officers arrived on the scene, making the notion of a crossfire seem more plausible. In that context, the assertion that Daniel Rohrbough died "instantly" from Klebold's shot becomes a convenient form of rebuttal.

As for Scott, investigators appear to have no doubt that she was the first to fall, based on eyewitness accounts and crime-scene evidence. But doubts remain. At least four witnesses to the shootings outside the school have questioned the sequence of events there; at a recent meeting of Columbine parents, one teacher reportedly complained that the police were trying to get her to "change her story" because it didn't square with the official account of Scott's death.

It's also worth noting that the first dispatch call after the shooting starts refers to a "female down in the south lot"-- almost certainly a reference to Anne Marie Hochhalter, who, according to the report, was the eighth person to be shot. Perhaps Hochhalter just happened to be the first victim observed by someone with a cell phone, but it's also possible that the sequence is not as clear-cut as the report indicates.

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