Lights, Camera...No Comment

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

After weeks of lawyerly correspondence, Jefferson County generously turned over twelve pages out of the hundreds of pages of documents we'd requested. Five of the twelve pages were duplicates, yet their pagination indicated that there were at least 3,000 other pages of investigative materials that the county had not yet released -- or even bothered submitting to Judge Jackson for review in response to earlier court orders.

At the March 19 court hearing, we discovered that there were other materials Jeffco officials didn't want to give us -- or couldn't give us, anyway, because they couldn't find them. Investigators had taped at least six of the twelve interviews they'd conducted with police officers who fired their weapons at Columbine. Assistant County Attorney Oeffler reported that the county had tapes of only four of those interviews, one of which had to be retrieved from another police agency shortly before the hearing. Yet the official evidence log indicated that the two missing tapes had been placed in the evidence vault by Kate Battan herself. (Last week, Jackson ordered the realease of all six tapes -- including the "missing" two, now found -- and several documents CBS had requested.)

What sent Gelber tugging at his tie, though, was the county's response to a simple request for a timeline. In a carefully worded letter to Gelber -- in which he declined to be interviewed -- Sheriff Stone had boasted that his officers had created "a detailed timeline of movement, associations and actions by the perpetrators...starting months before the incident." Little of this material had made it into Stone's report, which featured a timeline starting nine minutes before the attack began on April 20, 1999. Clearly, the more extensive chronology would be a matter of considerable public interest, and CBS News wanted it released.

Brooks Brown recalls his encounters with Eric Harris -- and his police interviews, now missing.
photo courtesy of CBS News
Brooks Brown recalls his encounters with Eric Harris -- and his police interviews, now missing.
Brian Rohrbough and Sue Petrone, parents of murdered Columbine student Dan Rohrbough, went to court to force the release of investigative files.
photo courtesy of CBS News
Brian Rohrbough and Sue Petrone, parents of murdered Columbine student Dan Rohrbough, went to court to force the release of investigative files.

Oeffler explained that investigators had indeed compiled a months-long timeline at one point, but it no longer existed.

"What happened to it?" Judge Jackson asked.

Oeffler shrugged. "It was destroyed, your honor," she said.

Deadpan, Jackson stared at her. "Destroyed," he repeated.

"It was shredded," Oeffler said.

"So," Jackson said slowly, "that [timeline] was created. But then destroyed."

"Of course," Oeffler said.

Of course. It would be a routine matter, after all, for detectives involved in the biggest criminal investigation in Colorado history to go about painstakingly re-creating the events leading up to the murders of thirteen people...and then decide not to publish this information in the official investigative report...and then shred the document...and forget to tell the sheriff that it was now so much confetti. Of course!

Jackson had begun the hearing exchanging casual quips with Oeffler and asking Battan about her golf game. By the end of it, he was unwilling to accuse anyone of bad faith, but he'd heard enough to issue a stern warning. "If I find someone's hiding the ball or misrepresenting anything to this court," he said, "the papers will have plenty to write about."

For Gelber, the problem was not what to write about, but how to get it all on television, his deadline ticking away like the famous 60 Minutes stopwatch. Maybe nobody was hiding the ball, but it seemed pretty clear that various people -- cops, school officials, parents -- had dropped it and now wanted the whole mess to go away. Gelber and Bradley and their team were trying to pick up that ball and run with it.

But two years later, was anyone still paying attention?

There Is No Monkey

Although much more is now known about the events of April 20, 1999, than was known even six months ago, the timing of the CBS documentary wasn't exactly ideal. Given the orgy of press coverage in the year following the tragedy, the prospect of yet another platoon of national media types parachuting into Littleton was enough to make some locals want to bar their doors and let loose the hounds.

Memories of the camera crews surrounding Rebel Hill in the days after the killings still loom large among staff and students at the high school. 20/20, 48 Hours, Dateline and the morning shows waded through the grief and rage for their own purposes, offering gooey hymns to dead children or portraits of plucky survivors that bordered on tabloid exploitation. And Time magazine had poisoned the well for other journalists with its December 1999 cover story on the videotapes that Klebold and Harris had made in the weeks before they carried out their suicide mission.

Time had set out to do a story on how the community was recovering from the murders; its reporters spent days interviewing teachers, students and victims' parents about their experiences and insights, their determination to honor their lost friends and loved ones. Most of that material never made it into print. Instead, the sheriff's office gave the magazine exclusive access to the so-called "basement tapes" -- under conditions that remain a matter of dispute -- and Time rushed into print with the scoop of the year.

The Time debacle left many in the Columbine community feeling betrayed -- not only by the press, but by Sheriff Stone ("Stonewalled," April 13, 2000). So when 60 Minutes, the venerable Cadillac of network newsmagazines, announced it was taking a "fresh look" at the story, lots of folks were understandably wary.

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