There Ought to Be a Law

Ten questions for the legislature's Columbine committee.

One episode that had a powerful influence in shaping the SWAT response at Columbine has never been properly scrutinized: the effort by Manwaring and an ad hoc collection of SWAT officers from different agencies, using a fire truck as cover, to rescue victims outside the west doors. Much of the sequence was captured on video by hovering news helicopters; what the tape doesn't show very well, though, is the shooting spree that occurred mid-rescue, altering the course of the operation for the rest of the day.

Manwaring's original plan, he told investigators that evening, was "to get the bad guys engaged and pinned and out of everybody's way." He commandeered a Littleton fire truck and dropped off the first entry team on the east side of the school shortly after noon. But moving at a crawl, checking windows for snipers along the way, it took the team half an hour to reach the west doors, where the truck was soon mired in mud.

Officers laid down cover fire as the team dragged wounded student Richard Castaldo and the body of Rachel Scott away from the west doors. The shots went in two directions, toward the library and the west doors, and may have ricocheted. Several members of the team were under the impression that they were under attack, even though Klebold and Harris apparently had committed suicide in the library long before the fire truck arrived.

Michael Hogue
State representative Don Lee says his proposed investigation would seek to resolve the unanswered questions about Columbine.
State representative Don Lee says his proposed investigation would seek to resolve the unanswered questions about Columbine.

Manwaring saw what he thought was a "bad guy" inside the west doors and squeezed off two shots. "It could have been a reflection; it could have been us, with the sun reflecting on the glass," he later told investigators.

Denver sergeant Dan O'Shea, who fired more rounds than any other officer at Columbine, would report that a suspect tossed an explosive from the emergency-exit door that led to the library. He said he saw a muzzle flash, which he attributed to a suspect firing "at least three rounds in the direction of the SWAT officers," so he returned fire. He also went down the hill, near Rohrbough's body, and pumped cover fire into the faculty lounge.

Denver SWAT commander Vince DiManna reported feeling some kind of "concussion/ heat" coming out of the library door during the rescue of Castaldo. Days later, he would tell a reporter from the Los Angeles Times how "a chunk of shrapnel gouged into his cheek when the killers tossed a bomb his way."

Are Jeffco's investigators mistaken about the time of the gunmen's suicide? Or was the rescue team firing at phantoms?

Concerned about making entry in an apparent hot zone, with one unexploded bomb visible at the west doors, the team made no further moves toward the building. Eventually, Manwaring, who'd slipped and injured his hand, returned to the east side with DiManna to regroup. When a west entry did take place, at 1:09 p.m., it was done from a window on the lower level, closer to the cafeteria than the library. It would be another ninety minutes before that team moved upstairs and found gravely wounded teacher Dave Sanders in the science area. By the time a paramedic was escorted to the room, around 3:20 p.m., Sanders was dead.

Recently released ballistics evidence shows that the Manwaring team's bullets sprayed the library and the hallway inside the west entrance at a time when dozens of students and teachers were still trapped in classrooms and another police team was roving the halls. Two police bullets fired from the west doors traveled the length of the hallway and were found in the east foyer of the school.


This question may never be answered with any degree of certainty. But that doesn't mean lawmakers shouldn't look into the matter. Even if one puts aside Jim Taylor's account as a "consoling" gesture gone awry, the contradictions in the information that's emerged from the investigation are formidable.

The sheriff's office has always maintained that Rohrbough was slain in the first minutes of the attack on the school, killed at close range by Klebold, but it's now clear that their conclusions are based more on eyewitness accounts than on physical evidence. Details in some eyewitness statements -- for example, saying that Klebold shot Rohrbough at close range with a shotgun -- indicate that at least some of the witnesses confused him with Lance Kirklin or another shooting victim. But others unambiguously identify Rohrbough as one of those shot before any police arrived.

Yet the fatal bullet was never recovered. Contrary to what investigators told the Rohrboughs, the one bullet found in his body was consistent with ammo fired from Harris's carbine, not Klebold's TEC-9. There were no shell casings from either gunman found in the vicinity of his body, no evidence that Klebold fired at close range. But there were plenty of police shells in the area.

Brian Rohrbough has always felt something was wrong with the official story. Not simply because of Jim Taylor, who may have sent him on his current path for all the wrong reasons. Not because of the recently revealed statements and circumstances that led him to file court papers accusing Sergeant Dan O'Shea of being in a position to shoot his son, an accusation O'Shea has repeatedly denied. It goes back to the scenario investigators outlined to him months before the sheriff's report was completed, a scenario that doesn't fit the physical evidence.

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