Back to School

The bullet in the backpack and other Columbine mysteries.

2:41 p.m. Responding to phone calls for medical aid that began three hours earlier, the second SWAT team finally locates wounded teacher Dave Sanders and numerous students and teachers in an upstairs science room. Sanders dies before a paramedic can be brought to the room.

3:22 p.m. SWAT officers enter the library, the last room to be reached. There are now more than 350 police officers on scene.

Asked by reporters why the first responding officers didn't pursue the shooters into the school, why they waited for a SWAT operation that took hours to stage, Sheriff Stone explained that the situation was just too dangerous.

 
Hadley-Hooper
 
Harris and Klebold planted two propane bombs in the cafeteria; had they exploded, the bombs could have killed more people than the explosions in Oklahoma City.
Harris and Klebold planted two propane bombs in the cafeteria; had they exploded, the bombs could have killed more people than the explosions in Oklahoma City.

"We were way outgunned," he said.

The Bullet in the Backpack

Police officers didn't enter the school for nearly an hour after the attack started. But their bullets did.

According to the sheriff's report, twelve officers fired a total of 141 times at Columbine that day. Three Denver SWAT veterans fired 105 of those rounds. Most of the police gunfire was in response to shooting by the gunmen from the west doors or the library windows. None of the shots hit Klebold or Harris.

Whether one of those bullets might have found another target is the central question behind the lawsuit filed by the parents of Daniel Rohrbough, who was killed outside in the early stages of the attack. Brian Rohrbough, Danny's father, contends that his son, already wounded by Klebold and Harris, was fleeing the gunmen when the fatal bullet was fired from the front by a police officer. Stone's office has denied the allegation, insisting that no police were even on the scene at the time Danny was slain.

The bullet was never recovered, and the question may ultimately be settled in a courtroom, where a jury will have to sort through testimony from dueling ballistics experts and the conflicting memories of eyewitnesses. Recently released documents show that the Colorado Bureau of Investigation was unable to establish through forensic tests that Klebold shot Rohrbough at close range, as the sheriff's report claims. The records also contradict the sheriff's office claim that numerous bullet fragments were found in the vicinity of Rohrbough's body; only one fragment, consistent with Harris's carbine, was collected by the evidence team.

But the Rohrbough case isn't the only murky ballistics puzzle to emerge from the Columbine investigation. The evidence teams collected a nine-millimeter shell casing from the east side of Columbine that doesn't match up with any police or suspect firearms in the case. Dismissing the discovery as irrelevant, a sheriff's office press release flatly declares, "There are no witnesses to anyone shooting on the east side of the school."

Actually, at least five students interviewed by police told similar stories of fleeing out the east doors, running to the park across the street and then seeing a figure in dark clothing emerge from the doors and fire in their direction. The shell casing may have nothing to do with the attack, but in defending its position, the sheriff's office has once again distorted the record compiled by its own investigators.

A more disturbing ballistics trail was assembled by the evidence-collection teams assigned to the battle-scarred school library. In addition to the carnage wreaked by Harris and Klebold, the area was riddled with dozens of police bullets. Several were found in the ceiling or the west window frames, indicative of officers outside firing from below at the gunmen in the windows. But at least fifteen bullets came from SWAT officers laying down cover fire outside the library as they checked on two students at the upper west doors -- one wounded, one dead.

That rescue operation took place forty minutes after Harris and Klebold committed suicide. The cops weren't firing at anything or anyone in particular -- although Terry Manwaring, the Jefferson County SWAT commander, thought he'd seen "a bad guy," or at least a reflection of some kind, before squeezing off three rounds. Police bullets went whizzing through an emergency exit at the school's northwest corner and into the library and adjacent rooms, not far from where several survivors of the massacre were still hiding or lying wounded, awaiting rescue.

There is no evidence that the police cover fire struck anyone. However, months after the shootings, investigators found a new piece of evidence in Corey DePooter's backpack, and their handling of that evidence is far from reassuring.

DePooter was the last victim killed in the library. According to police records, he was shot once by Klebold, two or three times by Harris. Only two bullets were recovered, both from Harris's gun. Despite noting a bullet hole in Corey's backpack, investigators apparently didn't inspect the pack closely until August 1999, when they found a bullet lodged in a notebook inside. They didn't inform his parents, Neal and Patty DePooter, of the find until months later, when the DePooters asked if Corey's backpack could be returned to them.

Circumstance would suggest that the bullet was one of the through-and-through rounds fired by Harris or Klebold, and that was the impression the police gave the DePooters. But there's no record that the bullet was ever tested against the gunmen's weapons for positive identification. Instead, investigators asked the CBI to compare the bullet to test-fired bullets from four police weapons of various calibers. The bullet did not match any of the four weapons.

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