Lights, Camera...No Comment

Two years after the shootings, 60 Minutes brings Columbine back to prime time -- and local officials get camera-shy.

David Gelber adjusts his tie. He tugs it left, then right again. It's as if he's trying to get more oxygen without disrobing, as if what's needed right now is a little fresh air, something to cleanse his lungs of the bad odor wafting through the halls of the Jefferson County Justice Center.

"Did you hear that?" he asks, nodding toward Judge Brooke Jackson's courtroom, the scene of a just-completed open-records hearing, during which Gelber and his employer, CBS News, sought to pry loose certain police records dealing with the Columbine shootings. "They don't have it. 'You destroyed it? You shredded it?' 'Of course we did.' Of course!"

A restless, peripatetic New Yorker, Gelber is a veteran network newsman with a deep aversion to seafood and bureaucrats. In recent years he's been the executive producer of one-hour documentaries hosted by Ed Bradley that air on 60 Minutes II, a job that seems to have placed him on a collision course with all manner of fish and petty officialdom. He has produced award-winning programs about poorly regulated psychiatric hospitals, AIDS in Africa, the war in Bosnia, a toxic dump in Louisiana.

Jay Vollmar
Sitdowns: Victims' families had plenty to tell Ed Bradley; police sources were another matter.
photo courtesy of CBS News
Sitdowns: Victims' families had plenty to tell Ed Bradley; police sources were another matter.

For the past five months, Gelber has been spending a lot of time in Denver, asking tough questions about Columbine. It hasn't been easy. In some ways, Bosnia was friendlier, the psych wards more conducive to mental health. Many school and police sources refused to be interviewed about Columbine or, even more maddening, they agreed to a date with Bradley and the cameras, then abruptly canceled. Now Gelber has exactly three weeks until he has to screen his project for CBS executives, and he's still finding out about vital documents that turn out to be missing, hidden -- or destroyed.

Despite the recent wave of copycat shootings, despite nagging questions about the worst school massacre the nation has ever seen, Columbine has become The Story Nobody Wants to Talk About. "This is, without a doubt, the hardest story I have ever done," Gelber says. "You carry the ball three yards, and you get knocked back two."

Heaven knows, I warned the man. I first met Gelber last November, when he contacted me about articles I had written for Westword examining the police rescue effort at Columbine. "You're going to get a lot of doors slammed in your face," I told him.

Having done my share of heavy lifting on the subject, I had come to understand why the families who lost children that day are so frustrated with Jefferson County Sheriff John Stone and his merry deputies. The cops said they couldn't answer the families' questions, for fear of compromising their investigation -- then leaked confidential information to Time and Salon. And then they shut up altogether, citing the wave of lawsuits that resulted from all those unanswered questions: Just what did the school and the police know about Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold before the massacre? Could they have done any more to save lives once the shooting started? What caused this to happen, and how could it be prevented from happening again?

For the most part, the local media stopped asking those questions long ago. They wrapped up their coverage with hefty, colorful "hope-and-healing" packages for the one-year anniversary and then walked away. If the public has learned anything about Columbine since, it's largely been through the efforts of the families themselves, who went to court last spring to force the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office to issue its long-delayed final report on the investigation. Then they persuaded Judge Jackson to release video footage, police dispatch calls and other evidence gathered in the investigation, evidence that contradicted the official version of what happened at Columbine on several key points ("The Lost Command," July 13, 2000).

Last fall, Jackson ordered the release of almost 11,000 pages from the Columbine investigative files, including witness statements, reports by SWAT and emergency rescue personnel, and interviews with the killers' associates and family members. The Denver dailies spent a couple of days pawing through the material, like geezers in raincoats looking for the naughty bits, then went back to sleep. But Gelber and his team were keenly interested in what those documents might contain: They were even more interested in what they didn't contain -- key diagrams, witness interviews and police reports that were referenced in the documents but were nowhere to be found.

And that is how Gelber, associate producer Kyla Dunn and I came to be sitting in Judge Jackson's courtroom, seeking to join in the open-records lawsuit already launched by the families of Kelly Fleming, Dan Rohrbough and other victims. The seating arrangement had an odd symbolism to it. On one side of the room sat the attorneys for CBS News and the Columbine families, hungry for information. At the defense table was an even unholier alliance -- Assistant County Attorney Lily Oeffler, Columbine chief investigator Kate Battan and attorneys for the Klebold and Harris families, all trying to guard their clients' secrets.

As a paid consultant for CBS, I had prepared a detailed list of dozens of items that appeared to be missing from the investigative files. The county attorney's office responded that some of the items had been "inadvertently omitted," while others had been misfiled. Other documents had never been collected in the first place or were considered "evidence" -- in other words, the sheriff's office was refusing to release them.

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