There Ought to Be a Law

Ten questions for the legislature's Columbine committee.

Like exiles without portfolios, the families have sought sanctuary in one chilly forum after another. They've jousted with Jefferson County officials over open records, extracting sporadic releases of police files months and even years after they were first requested. They've sat through months of hearings conducted by Governor Bill Owens's Columbine Review Commission, only to have key law-enforcement commanders, including Jefferson County Sheriff John Stone, decline to testify. They've gone to federal court, hungry to depose witnesses, only to see most of their lawsuits tossed out last fall by U.S. District Judge Lewis Babcock on the grounds of governmental immunity. They've been joined by major media outlets in calls for a county or federal grand jury to investigate possible police misconduct, to no avail.

At the end of their tether, several of them recently stood on the steps of the State Capitol and committed an act of sheer desperation: They asked the Colorado General Assembly for help.

Two weeks ago, state representative Don Lee introduced legislation to create an investigative committee to explore the "unanswered questions" about the attack on Columbine and its aftermath. Unlike the governor's commission, Lee's group would have the authority to issue subpoenas and compel testimony. Police witnesses wouldn't be able to evade testifying by citing the threat of civil litigation, as they did when invited to appear before Owens's panel. Since Lee doesn't plan to offer immunity for testimony, their only other option would be to invoke their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Brian Rohrbough and Sue Petrone wonder why police officers have lied to them about their son's death.
photo courtesy of CBS News
Brian Rohrbough and Sue Petrone wonder why police officers have lied to them about their son's death.
Using a fire truck as cover, SWAT officers thought they were under fire while rescuing students at the west doors -- and fired back. But the sheriff's report says the gunmen committed suicide forty minutes earlier.
photo courtesy of CBS News
Using a fire truck as cover, SWAT officers thought they were under fire while rescuing students at the west doors -- and fired back. But the sheriff's report says the gunmen committed suicide forty minutes earlier.

Lee acknowledges that some lawmakers may balk at the cost of mounting such an effort, but he says he's also received a lot of support for the proposal. "Once it starts to go through the system," he says, "and we start to clarify to my colleagues the intent of the committee, I'm confident that it'll make it through."

If the measure passes, the committee's legal counsel could be taking sworn depositions from witnesses as early as this summer. Lee sees the process as essential, not only to get "information the community needs, to get some closure and put this behind them," but to address the larger credibility crisis that local police agencies have endured because of the mushrooming allegations of a coverup.

"Trust in government, ever since Watergate, has fallen," Lee notes. "Since 9/11, it's starting to go up again, but there are questions surrounding local government in Jefferson County. This is an opportunity for both sides. Some people have been much maligned in the media and would welcome an opportunity to speak about what they've done since Columbine to improve things. Right now, I think guilt by silence is occurring -- and suspicion by silence."

Officials in "key leadership positions" who have direct knowledge about what happened at Columbine have told him that "they would welcome a subpoena to clear the air," Lee adds.

But if the committee wants to rid itself of the bad odor of previous Columbine investigations, it's going to have to ask hard questions -- the kind of questions Owens's commission didn't dare to ask. And it's going to have to press for detailed answers that could shape legislation aimed at preventing similar police fiascoes.

Many of the most difficult questions about Columbine, such as the motives of the two killers or what their parents knew about their activities, have haunted the investigation from the beginning. Others have emerged only in the past few months, as more evidence has come to light that challenges the version of events contained in Sheriff Stone's self-serving "final report," issued in May 2000.

The following questions are derived from interviews with victims' families, eyewitnesses and police sources, as well as a review of recently released investigative files. If lawmakers choose to enter the labyrinth that Columbine has become, these are the questions they won't be able to avoid.


1. WHAT HAPPENED TO THE SEARCH WARRANT?

On April 30, 1999, ten days after the shootings, Jefferson County officials held a press conference in an effort to head off a growing media furor. Over the course of thirty minutes, Jeffco sheriff's spokesman Steve Davis and Lieutenant John Kiekbusch spooned out enough misleading and patently false information to make even Jim Taylor blush.

The subject was the Brown complaint. Reporters had recently learned that Columbine parents Randy and Judy Brown had complained to the sheriff's office in March 1998 that Eric Harris was making death threats on the Internet -- including a specific threat against their son Brooks -- and boasting about detonating pipe bombs and vandalizing private property. The Browns had even provided investigators with copies of pages downloaded from Harris's Web site, but the sheriff's investigation had seemingly vanished into a black hole.

Davis began the press briefing by reading a prepared statement. The Browns hadn't wanted police to contact Harris, he said, and the Web site address they provided couldn't be located, so "elements of a crime could not be established." (Randy Brown has always maintained that he did want the Harrises contacted by police; he just didn't want to be identified as the source of the complaint, out of concern over reprisals.)

Kiekbusch then fielded questions. Harris's writings were "quite outlandish," he said, but it's not a crime to say anything you want on the Internet. "We're looking at it as someone's fantasy. We compared that information against explosive pipe-bomb devices that had been recovered in the county. There was nothing to match up there."

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