Lights, Camera...No Comment

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

But Bradley is no actor, brought on stage at the climactic moment to interrogate the usual suspects. Unlike some superstars of TV news who are truly wretched journalists, he has remained interested in risky and difficult stories. When CBS executives balked at the idea of devoting an hour of prime time to the AIDS epidemic in Africa -- "a foreign story, a story about dying black people, with hardly any white people in it," Gelber notes -- it was Bradley who championed the project. (Two weeks ago the program won a Peabody, the most prestigious award in broadcast journalism.) No one on the CBS team seems to begrudge Bradley his seven-figure salary, either; as one member explained it to me, his appeal is what pays their salaries, too.

Bradley proved to be a quick study of the Columbine situation. Given how many other stories he was working on simultaneously, his command of the details was impressive. He really wanted to get to the bottom of this thing. There was only one problem: No one in a position of accountability was willing to sit down with him -- to let Bradley be Bradley.

Try as he might, Gelber was unable to budge Sheriff Stone from the media-proof bunker he's inhabited since the Time flap. Phone calls and letters appealing to the sheriff's sense of civic duty yielded only a polite, three-page response, in which Stone defended his officers and his department -- better than nothing, but a poor substitute for a sitdown. His refusal was disappointing but not unexpected, since he'd been telling people for months that he'd love to talk but that worrywart county attorney wouldn't let him, what with all those lawsuits piling up in federal court. Stone had already been pilloried by William Erickson, the head of the governor's Columbine commission, for not talking to that august panel, and he could hardly chew the fat with Bradley after snubbing the governor. (The commission's final report is due on Governor Bill Owens's desk around May 15.)

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.

Gelber asked Stone to designate a surrogate, but that led nowhere, too. Former sheriff's spokesman Steve Davis, a smooth and leonine presence who had hustled to correct Stone's gaffes in the days after the shootings, left his post for the greener pastures of private enterprise months ago. There were a number of top law-enforcement people from other agencies at the command post that April 20, but none of them were eager to go on camera and defend the police response. Like the Denver brass, they wouldn't publicly criticize the sheriff -- but they weren't going to pinch-hit for him, either.

The school district was just as wary. After months of discussions with the district's attorneys and top administrators, Gelber was finally able to secure interviews with several Columbine teachers -- ordinary folk caught up in an amazing and traumatic situation, whose dedication and concern for their students made a vivid impression. But principal Frank DeAngelis, whose bland bafflement at the evil in his school had been expressed in countless interviews, canceled his sitdown at the last moment, saying he didn't feel "comfortable" about the prospect.

Frustrated, Bradley was reduced to practicing his more aggressive techniques on Gelber himself. Trips to Whole Foods in Cherry Creek, the correspondent's favorite lunch spot, became odysseys of inquisition.

"Just how many cell phones have you lost?" Bradley demanded one day, as Gelber dialed furiously on a borrowed Nokia.

"Not many," Gelber replied, then tried to change the subject.

"Is it five or six?"

"No more than four, Mr. Bradley."

"And how many pagers?"

"This is only my second one."

"You're sure of that?"

At the eleventh hour, the school district realized that it was better to provide a spokesperson to handle the tough questions than to join the ranks of the no-commenters. The correspondent flew in special for the interview from New York and was joined by an elite camera crew from San Francisco. For a brief and shining hour, Bradley got to be Bradley.

It's Always Spring in the Commune

A former Village Voice writer with a keen ear for leftist cant, Gelber liked to repeat cheery slogans from the People's Republic of China to bolster spirits during the Columbine project.

"Just remember," he'd say, "it's always spring in the commune."

Whenever he said it, I knew another interview had just been canceled, another lead squashed. The phrase was also invoked after the City of Littleton informed CBS that it wanted $20,000 to redact and release its police-dispatch tapes. No setback could change the course of spring in the commune.

But with so many officials suffering from laryngitis, Gelber had to find other ways to tell an extremely complex story. Fortunately, the paper trail of Columbine, along with the audio and video record of the police response, told a great deal. Here are three examples.

Item one: Our document hunt turned up an affidavit for a search warrant for Eric Harris's house drafted by a Jefferson County sheriff's investigator months before the shootings, in response to the Browns' complaints about death threats and pipe bombs. The warrant was never executed or even submitted to a judge; after the killings, it had been shown to Jefferson County District Attorney Dave Thomas, who told the cops that he never would have approved it anyway, based on the information presented. Yet the affidavit's very existence contradicts the sheriff's explanation that the Brown complaint was a "routine" matter that led nowhere, that there was no real indication that a crime had been committed. At least one investigator took the report seriously enough to want to pursue it, and that raises all sorts of questions about the lack of further action on the case.

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