Lights, Camera...No Comment

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

Curiously, the degree of suspicion at the center of the Columbine maelstrom was not as great as might be supposed. Many parents, teachers and even police officers were eager to talk to Gelber and company -- although not necessarily on camera. They had their own doubts about the sheriff's self-serving report, their own questions about the official story.

Some, like Randy and Judy Brown, who'd reported Eric Harris's Internet death threats to the police a year before the shootings, had been thrust into the spotlight from the beginning; others had never before talked publicly. Several parents were embroiled in lawsuits with Stone or the school district and had been vilified by critics as greedy, but they insisted they weren't after money. Could money bring their children back? What they wanted was answers, and if 60 Minutes could provide them, so be it.

As Gelber saw it, the cooperation of the victims' families was essential to the success of the documentary; it's not an exaggeration to say that their quest for information became its driving force, its moral center. They had questions about how the Browns' complaint had fallen through the cracks, even though Harris was already on a diversion program in another criminal case. They had questions about the threats and violent essays and videos Klebold and Harris had presented in class. They had questions about why, despite frantic 911 calls for help, police had held a perimeter outside the school while the gunmen executed students in the library; why teacher Dave Sanders bled to death while SWAT officers searched mostly empty rooms on the other side of the school; why the library was one of the last rooms reached by the rescue effort. Finally, they had questions about what officials had done since the killings about threat assessment, rapid response and other issues to prevent another school massacre.

 
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.

These were darned good questions, but among those in a position of official accountability, they didn't seem to merit a response. "This community has no unanswered questions about Columbine," a spokeswoman for one of the rescue agencies told associate producer Dunn.

"Well, we've talked to people who do have questions," Dunn replied.

"This community has no questions," the woman repeated.

Jefferson County School District spokesman Rick Kaufman took a similar stance. The district had answered any questions about its role, he insisted; CBS was simply raking old muck -- and traumatizing people in the bargain. "We have been working with 60 Minutes to mitigate the impact on the school and the community," he told the Columbine Courier. "These stories continue to damage the school and the community. We want to move forward."

It didn't take many conversations with Kaufman and his brethren for CBS to conclude that the flacks for various public agencies had been talking to each other and had decided to present a united front: There are no questions, hence we have no answers. Go home.

Among some members of Gelber's team, this kind of studied obtuseness became known as the "There is no monkey" line of defense. Helen Malmgren, Gelber's co-producer, tells the story of a man housesitting for a friend who has a pet monkey. The man's dog eats the monkey. When anyone calls to inquire how the monkey is doing, the man replies simply, "There is no monkey." Not a lie, exactly, but hardly the soul of candor.

The most astonishing display of monkey business came from the Denver Police Department. Lawsuits have a way of zipping the lips of even the most media-friendly officials; still, no one quite expected the reception we got from the DPD, which isn't being sued by any of the Columbine litigants.

The investigative files released by Judge Jackson revealed, for the first time, the true scope of Denver's role in the police response on April 20, 1999 -- a contribution that was greatly downplayed in Sheriff Stone's report. Denver police responded en masse to Jeffco's call for assistance; some officers were on their way even before the official call went out, thanks to Columbine student Matt Depew, the son of a Denver cop, who got on the phone to DPD's District 4 soon after the shooting started.

Denver officers called for ambulances to aid wounded students outside the school. When no ambulances came, several officers left the safety of their perimeter assignments to evacuate the students themselves, while coming under fire from the gunmen in the library.

DPD dispatch tapes obtained by CBS show that the Denver command operated independently of Jefferson County's command post to a great extent, making many crucial decisions throughout the afternoon to try to contain the chaos.

Most important of all, the records confirmed that three veteran Denver SWAT officers, equipped with a submachine gun, a rifle and a .45 automatic, respectively, reached the west side of the school early enough in the conflict to spot a gun barrel sticking out of the west doors. Two of them fired at the shooter, who promptly retreated. But according to Sheriff Stone's report, two "outgunned" deputies armed only with pistols -- Neil Gardner and Paul Smoker -- exchanged shots with Harris at the west doors. Denver's participation in the gun battle isn't mentioned; in fact, Denver isn't even supposed to be on the scene at this point.

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