By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By William Breathes
By Jonathan Shikes
By Michael Roberts
On a Monday in early January, Arapahoe County Sheriff's Deputy Jim Taylor was finally brought to account for the strange and disturbing story he'd been telling about the Columbine massacre for nearly three years. Summoned that morning to a meeting with internal affairs, Taylor admitted that the story was, in essence, a pack of lies.
"I think, emotionally, I just got too attached to the whole thing," Taylor told Brant Reed, an inspector from the Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office of Professional Standards. "I guess I got overloaded."
Taylor was attempting to explain why, only hours after the shootings, he'd told the grieving mother of slain student Daniel Rohrbough that he had seen her son killed on the west side of the school. The story clashed with the official version of Rohrbough's death -- that he was killed in the early stages of the attack by gunmen Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, before any police arrived on scene -- and it launched his parents on a nightmarish odyssey that would eventually lead them to sue the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office, alleging that Dan was killed by a cop.
When the family went public with Taylor's account last December, shortly after their federal lawsuit was dismissed, Taylor denied that he'd ever said any such thing. Dan's parents, Sue Petrone and Brian Rohrbough, promptly released excerpts of a taped conversation in which Taylor, a longtime family friend, had repeated the story in detail nearly a year after the shootings. On the tape, Taylor and his wife, Pam, discuss how he'd come home from Columbine on April 20, 1999, and told her that he'd seen a boy get shot.
"It was Dan," Taylor says on the tape, "and I didn't know that until I seen [his] photo the next morning in the newspaper."
Taylor, who didn't know he was being taped, was caught. Now he told Reed that he had been "trying to console the family" and "help with the grieving" by placing himself in the middle of the gunfire on the west side. Actually, he admitted, he'd spent the day holding a perimeter position a block away from the school.
"I never stopped to take a look at the whole big picture of what this was doing," he said. "At the time, I didn't realize I was being untruthful....Unfortunately, it sounds like this has totally misled the family, and that was not my intention at all."
Arapahoe County Sheriff Pat Sullivan fired Taylor two days later. The department's interviews with other officers on the scene and a review of transcripts of dispatch transmissions indicated that Taylor hadn't been assigned to the west side of Columbine and had arrived after Dan was killed. "This is not an uncommon issue, people embellishing their role," Sullivan told the Rohrboughs and the Petrones when he met with them to discuss the affair.
But the family is far from satisfied with the sheriff's explanation. Sue Petrone recalls how, when she showed Taylor a photo in the April 21, 1999, Rocky Mountain News of her son lying on the sidewalk outside the school, "his face went ashen." And many details of Taylor's "eyewitness" account coincide with physical evidence the family has since uncovered, evidence that's seriously at odds with the official story.
"If the guy was lying, it's strange that he got so many things right," says Brian Rohrbough. "Where was he getting his information?"
A few weeks ago, Rohrbough pressed Sullivan to release Arapahoe County's dispatch tapes from the day of the attack, as well as any additional paperwork that would help nail down Taylor's whereabouts that morning. (The available record is far from conclusive; investigators insist the deputy didn't report to the command post at Columbine until 12:22 p.m., an hour after the attack began, but his call sign shows up in the dispatch transcripts shortly before noon, which is about the same time another officer recalls arriving on the scene with him.) Sullivan told Rohrbough and his attorney that they were welcome to request additional documents and that his office hadn't destroyed anything.
But Sullivan now says that there is no other paperwork and that the dispatch tapes were destroyed -- "recycled," as he puts it -- a year after the shootings. Even though other Arapahoe County evidence was turned over intact to Jefferson County, the lead investigative agency, the tapes -- starting at 11:35 a.m., fifteen minutes after the attack started -- were transcribed, then reused to save money. "Nobody wanted them," Sullivan says. "Not even Jeffco."
"This is the worst school shooting in the country, and they destroy the primary record of what their officers did that day?" Rohrbough asks. "They don't save a copy for anybody? I find that really hard to believe."
But where Columbine is concerned, the unbelievable has become commonplace. Troubling as it is, the bizarre saga of Jim Taylor is only one strand in a tangled tale of police misstatements and disinformation, bungled investigations, missing or destroyed evidence, stonewalling by public officials and embarrassing leaks of sensitive tapes and files ("Lights, Camera...No Comment," April 12, 2001). The missteps have only added to the trauma faced by families whose children were killed or injured that day. As they see it, Jim Taylor may be the first public servant to be fired for lying about Columbine, but he's hardly the only one with something to hide.
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.
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."
One item that Davis and Kiekbusch neglected to mention was a search-warrant affidavit drafted by bomb investigator Mike Guerra in response to the Brown complaint; if they had, it would have blown their whole story. Guerra stated that he had matched Harris's description of his pipe bombs to an exploded device found in the county. Coupled with the death threats, the matter had sufficient "elements of a crime," in his view, to justify a search warrant. If executed, the search warrant could well have uncovered Harris's detailed plan to attack Columbine, which was already nestled in his computer in late April 1998 ("I'm Full of Hate and I Love It," December 6, 2001). Guerra's affidavit also put the lie to official denials that the Browns had ever met in person with the lead investigator on the case.
Kiekbusch's dismissal of the Brown complaint as a non-story was a remarkable performance, particularly since the Guerra affidavit had already been brought to the attention of Columbine investigators. Shortly before the press conference, Sheriff Stone had shown it to Jefferson County District Attorney Dave Thomas, who told him he wouldn't have okayed the warrant without more evidence. But neither Thomas, who was also at the press conference, nor the sheriff's mouthpieces saw fit to mention the document.
Despite numerous public-records requests by families and reporters for any additional records pertaining to the Brown complaint, the Guerra affidavit remained buried for two years -- until CBS News went to court to pry it loose last spring ("Chronology of a Big Fat Lie," April 19, 2001). The sheriff's office responded with the preposterous assertion that the affidavit's existence had been disclosed shortly after the shootings.
Given that Jeffco's investigation of Eric Harris went further than county officials said it did, what stopped it? Who made the decision not to take Guerra's search-warrant request to the district attorney? Could it be, as some Columbine families' attorneys have speculated, that the Harris family had some kind of "juice" with the sheriff's office? If not, if some other factor tipped the scales, why did Stone's people go to such pains to try to minimize the issue, discredit the Browns and conceal the existence of the affidavit?
Three months ago, in a private meeting with victims' families, Dave Thomas pledged that he would try to answer those questions by making inquiries among the officers who were directly involved in handling the complaint. "He promised that the investigation would be concluded by the end of January," says Randy Brown. "It never happened."
Pam Russell, spokeswoman for Thomas's office, says the inquiry is "on hold" pending the resolution of other matters, including the special probe into Dan Rohrbough's death by El Paso County Sheriff John Anderson at the start of the year; Thomas's office expects those results in a few weeks.
No Jeffco official has received the slightest reprimand for playing hide-and-seek with the Guerra affidavit for two years. County Attorney Bill Tuthill has said that because the document wasn't specifically requested until CBS asked for it in court, the county wasn't hiding it at all.
2. WHAT DID THE SCHOOL ADMINISTRATION KNOW?
School officials have acknowledged that they were notified of the Brown complaint, but only to the extent that Eric Harris "may be messing around with pipe bombs." They took no action, they say, because they were told that the sheriff's office was handling the investigation.
But communication between the school and law enforcement wasn't everything it could be. Several Columbine administrators knew about the 1998 arrest of Harris and Klebold for burglarizing a van -- Harris even wrote about the experience for one class assignment -- but it doesn't appear that they passed on to police any of the complaints they received about the pair. Their disciplinary records, which include a suspension for hacking into the school computer system and reports about possible vandalism and intimidation of other students, remain sealed because of school privacy laws, as do the violence-laced videos they made as class assignments.
Hours after the killings, Jeffco deputy and school resource officer Neil Gardner told investigators he "had never dealt with Eric Harris." Ten days later, his memory had been refreshed to the point that the sheriff's office acknowledged that Gardner had briefed a dean about the Brown complaint and had subsequently "kept an eye" on Harris and Klebold, occasionally engaging them in "light conversation."
It remains unclear whether all this eyeballing led to any coordinated effort to assess the potential threat Klebold and Harris posed to their fellow students. One teacher read Klebold's graphic essay about a trenchcoated assassin and reported it to his parents and a counselor. A student claims to have met with a vice principal to express her concerns that Harris was dangerous; a parent claims to have gone to yet another administrator to report Klebold for harassing her son. The video-class instructor may have seen the tape the gunmen made of themselves firing sawed-off shotguns in the mountains, which they edited in the video lab. But none of this information went to a central source with responsibility for followup, such as principal Frank DeAngelis.
School officials aren't talking about this breakdown in their security procedures, and that frustrates Phyllis Velasquez. Her son Kyle had been at Columbine only four months, enrolled in a special-education program, when he was murdered by Klebold and Harris.
"My kid was labeled a 'problem child,' and he couldn't sneeze without something being reported," Velasquez says. "It was like a daily phone call: If he knocked over a chair, I'd get a call. I don't understand how these two boys can make these videos and write these violent essays, and the school doesn't know anything about it."
Velasquez says she had to fight numerous battles to get Kyle into the special-education program at Columbine, which included an agreement that staff would supervise him at lunchtime so other kids wouldn't get him into trouble. ("He'd do anything for anybody if he thought they were going to be his friend," she says.) And while the school was quick to notify her of any problem behavior, she says she was never told that he was being allowed to leave the cafeteria at lunch and go on his own to the library, where he was killed.
"The teachers said they were trying to let him 'spread his wings,'" she recalls. "That's fine, but I was never notified that they were doing it. That's the way Jefferson County treated us the whole time."
3. WHO WAS IN CHARGE OF THE POLICE RESPONSE?
The problems police encountered in setting up command and communications to respond to the attack was a fundamental concern of the Governor's Columbine Review Commission. Unfortunately, because Sheriff Stone and other key commanders refused to testify, "much remains unclear about the command center's operations," noted the commission's report, released in May 2001.
The sheriff's own report describes how, as ranking officers arrived on scene, they coolly made assignments and pulled together to organize an efficient response to the evolving crisis, battling radio glitches, pesky media types and witnesses' hysteria the entire way. An incident command post was established minutes after the attack began, the report states, and quickly branched out to encompass tactical command, perimeter control, evacuation and investigation. But this portrait of a battle-ready, level-headed corps of commanders bears little resemblance to the disarray and conflicting orders encountered by officers from other agencies who rushed to assist with the emergency.
In theory, Deputy Neil Gardner, the first officer on scene, was in charge during the first fifteen minutes of the attack, until command officers started to arrive. Stone's report implies that Gardner was the one who started to deploy responding officers in perimeter positions around the school. But dispatch tapes and Gardner's own statements to investigators don't indicate that he ever gave such an order; apparently, the arriving deputies simply defaulted to their training for a potential "hostage" situation, which was to set up a perimeter and wait for SWAT teams to arrive. Meanwhile, Harris and Klebold were executing students in the library -- a situation indelibly impressed on the dispatchers at Jeff-co's headquarters in Golden, who had a phone link to a teacher in the room and could hear the shots and the screams.
Lieutenant Terry Manwaring, Jeffco's SWAT commander, was the first member of the agency's command staff to arrive; Manwaring quickly assumed the role of tactical commander. But he was soon embroiled in a rescue effort that took him on a very slow ride around the school in a fire truck, during which he lost communication with the command post. (The time-consuming ride had other consequences as well; see Question #4, below.) Arriving officers from Littleton and Lakewood found so much confusion at the Jeffco command post and so little direction in the way of a SWAT command that they decided to form their own tactical command post closer to the school.
The Jeffco commanders "were not yet ready to provide a specific mission," wrote one Lakewood SWAT officer in his report. "In the interim, we had received reports...that there were many victims both inside and outside of the school who were wounded and needed to be rescued.... I instructed our team to join up with Denver SWAT to begin rescuing wounded students."
One Littleton officer reported that he was told by Bob Armstrong, an Arapahoe County captain who was one of the first commanders on the scene, "that our SWAT unit was the closest and that 'It's your problem.'"
An Arapahoe County SWAT commander arriving at the tactical command around one o'clock found a Littleton sergeant in charge. Manwaring didn't return to the east side of the school to assume command until later that afternoon.
Several officers reported being sent to one location by Jeffco commanders, then another by their Denver counterparts, or being assigned to commands they couldn't contact by radio and couldn't find in the swelter of traffic and evacuees. Many SWAT teams, bomb teams, paramedics and other rescue personnel spent the day "standing by," waiting for orders or wounded victims who never arrived.
"This was the most difficult day of my career," one paramedic wrote. "To sit in staging five hours listening to calls for more medics and medical equipment was unbearable, and we did nothing."
4. WHY DID IT TAKE THE SWAT TEAMS FOUR HOURS TO REACH THE LIBRARY?
Stone's office has cited numerous potential and real hazards that hampered rescue teams as the afternoon dragged on: smoke, shrieking fire alarms, radio problems, locked doors, a lack of maps, unexploded bombs, reports of multiple shooters, and so on. But the confusion within the command structure certainly contributed to the delay, and the sheriff has never explained why the library and the science area -- the rooms that contained critically wounded victims, from which 911 operators had received desperate phone calls seeking help -- were the very last places the SWAT teams reached.
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.
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.
5. WHO KILLED DANIEL ROHRBOUGH?
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.
His case against O'Shea may be highly circumstantial, Rohrbough says, but the official version makes no sense. If the detectives truly believed their story, why did they fight him so long before releasing Dan's clothes? Why did they dawdle for more than a year over releasing detailed ballistics data, even after a judge ordered it released?
"I believe they're still hiding information," he says, "and trying to make the evidence fit their story."
Rohrbough doesn't expect the review of the evidence now being conducted by the El Paso County Sheriff's Office to resolve the issue. No one from that office has bothered to contact him, he says, to find out what evidence he might have about his son's death.
6. HOW ACCURATE IS THE OFFICIAL TIMELINE?
Investigators promised that the sheriff's report would provide a detailed, "minute-by-minute" account of what happened at Columbine. The report's timeline was dutifully accepted by media outlets as an unimpeachable chronology of events. Yet a review of the source materials upon which the timeline is based, including dispatch and 911 calls and video surveillance tapes, suggests otherwise.
A case can be made that Stone's office fudged its timeline to make it appear that Jeff-co deputies took swifter action to try to engage the gunmen than they actually did ("More Whoppers From Jeffco," October 25, 2001). But the report's minute-by-minute tracking of the killers' movements during their 47-minute rampage is suspect, too.
Consider, for example, an episode the sheriff's report never mentions: the arrival of two Denver police officers on the west side, early enough to engage a suspect at the west entrance. The two had spotted a gun barrel, presumably Harris's carbine, sticking out of the doorway and fired at it; the suspect retreated.
When did this happen? Jeffco's timeline states that Harris was at the west doors, trading bullets with deputies Neil Gardner and Paul Smoker, at 11:26 a.m., well before any Denver officers were on scene. Harris never returned to the west doors, according to the timeline.
Could he have come back after the library massacre, which ended at 11:36? The timeline says the two gunmen were in the science area at that point, on the opposite side of the building. How about after their three-minute appearance on the surveillance video, trying to set off the bombs in the cafeteria? Possibly, but the timeline has them heading for the office area, a long way from the west doors. Then they're back in the cafeteria at 11:57 before heading upstairs to the library to commit suicide.
The official account of what Harris and Klebold were doing whenever they weren't actually captured on audio or videotape is hazy, at best. Many aspects of their plan of attack remain a mystery. Investigators do know that their cafeteria bombs were set to go off at 11:17; when the bombs failed to explode, the sheriff's report says, the gunmen's actions became increasingly "random" and inexplicable, right up to their suicides.
But maybe it wasn't quite as random as the report would have us believe. The report offers no explanation for the library massacre, why the pair decided to return to the library, or why they chose that particular moment to kill themselves. Yet Harris's journal writings, first published by Westwordlast December, show that he had planned from the beginning to go into the school to "pick off" victims at will. And the pair may have had a special reason for returning to the library before their deaths: A photo of the timing device taken from one of the bombs police found in their cars shows the alarm set for noon.
The library is an excellent location for viewing a fireball in the parking lot. Perhaps they hoped to see their cars explode, killing rescue workers and police.
When that didn't happen, maybe they decided it was time to go.
7. WHY DID INVESTIGATORS PROVIDE MISLEADING AND FALSE INFORMATION TO VICTIMS' FAMILIES?
They told grieving families that their children's bodies were boobytrapped and couldn't be moved. They told the parents of one boy that their son never knew what hit him. They told the parents of another that their wounded son fell to the sidewalk and waited there for one to two minutes, until Klebold came up and shot him again. And they didn't bother to correct the rumor about which girl said "yes" when the killers asked if she believed in God, not even as the story spiraled into a media legend about martyrdom.
None of it was true. Years later, some Columbine parents are still seething over the bad information they received from the police and how it poisoned their relationship with the investigation.
Some early gaffes, such as the boobytrap reports, may have been a simple misunderstanding. When investigators first tried to move Klebold's body in the library, unexploded "cricket" bombs began to tumble out of his pockets, prompting the rest of the crime-scene processing to be conducted with a high degree of caution. But other bits of misinformation have persisted for years. The Kechters have been waiting patiently for months for the results of sophisticated tests that would explain the burns on their son's body; they recently learned that investigators aren't sure those tests were ever conducted.
Phyllis Velasquez says detectives told her that her son was sitting at a library computer, ignoring the commotion around him, when Klebold walked up and shot him in the back of the head. She has since studied crime-scene sketches, listened to the 911 tapes and learned the truth: Kyle was crouching under the table, hiding like all the others, when he was shot. He was not so oblivious to his surroundings that he escaped the terror that swept through the room.
It's important to know such things, Velasquez says, no matter how painful.
"My son was murdered," she says. "Nothing worse than that could ever happen to me. It's downhill from there, you know? So the truth is not going to hurt you. But being told one thing and finding out the truth later, that hurts a lot. You end up reliving the whole thing, falling apart all over again. How unfair is that, to put a parent through that twice?
"I feel like they made a decision to tell us something else, for whatever reason -- to cover something up, to spare people's feelings, whatever. But that's not their decision to make. You should be told the truth. I don't understand why they did it this way."
After the Velasquezes joined other families in calling for a legislative committee to investigate Columbine, Phyllis received a phone call from Kate Battan, who headed up Jeffco's probe of the shootings. The two had not spoken much since the families filed their lawsuits against the sheriff's office, but Battan was now offering to answer any questions Velasquez might have about her son's death.
"I told her I did have a lot of questions, and I wanted to see all of the crime-scene photos that involve Kyle," Velasquez says. "There was this long pause, and she said, 'I don't know if I can do that. I'll have to check.' And I told her I would be bringing my attorney. There was this really long pause, and she said, 'I'll have to check and get back to you.' I haven't heard back from her, and I really don't expect to."
"I work for the victims," Battan told a reporter from Timemagazine two years ago. "When they don't have any more questions, then I feel I've done my job."
8. WHY DID JEFFERSON COUNTY FAIL TO COLLECT, ANALYZE AND PRESERVE IMPORTANT EVIDENCE?
Missing interviews. A shredded timeline. Untested bullets. Missing tapes.
The Columbine open-records battle has yielded documents that investigators never anticipated would be made public. It's also shown that the county has been less than an ideal custodian of the records comprising the largest criminal investigation in Colorado history.
Some of the materials that Jefferson County has been unable to produce -- because they can't be located or were never prepared in the first place -- are of minor significance. But others could resolve major questions about Columbine, and their absence has only generated more suspicion about the thoroughness and integrity of the sheriff's investigation.
For example, a key interview with Sergeant O'Shea, now at the heart of the Rohrbough controversy, was not taped, contrary to standard "shoot review team" policy. The brief summary of the interview provided -- by an investigator from the Jefferson County District Attorney's office -- doesn't begin to account for the sixty rounds he fired that day.
The county has produced no follow-up interviews with its own crucial witnesses, including Deputy Gardner, even though it's clear that investigators questioned him on more than one occasion. Jeffco apparently never bothered to collect hundreds of pages of witness interviews and reports that have since surfaced in the files of other police agencies. And other vital records the county didn't collect, such as the Arapahoe County dispatch tapes or tapes of Denver's SWAT channel, have apparently been destroyed.
"There's no unknown bullets from an unknown gun," Kate Battan told the Denver Post eleven months after the shootings. But the ballistics record is riddled with examples of unaccounted-for police gunfire and bullets of questionable origin. One police weapon fired that day was kept in the officer's patrol car for more than a year before it was finally submitted for ballistics tests.
Last month, Jeffco finally got around to having a bullet found in the backpack of Corey DePooter, the last victim to be killed in the library, tested against the gunmen's weapons. The bullet had previously been tested against four police weapons, none of which had been used to fire into the library. The bullet came from Harris's carbine. When asked why it had taken so long to have the bullet fully tested, a Jeffco spokesman said that Battan had only discovered the "oversight" a few weeks earlier.
Actually, Jeffco had been notified of the problem with the DePooter bullet eight months before the testing, in a letter from Westwordto Sheriff Stone. According to a department spokeswoman, the letter was passed on to Battan for response. When the response finally arrived, four months later -- from the county attorney's office, not Stone or Battan -- the questions about the DePooter bullet were simply ignored. So were the DePooters' questions about the bullet, as raised in a subsequent Westword article ("Back to School," October 25, 2001). It was only when the family stood on the steps of the Capitol last month, requesting lawmakers' help, that Jefferson County finally decided it would be a good idea to run ballistics on a bullet found two and a half years earlier in the backpack of a murder victim.
Such glaring investigative lapses are only part of what troubles victims' families. While being stonewalled on information they believe they should have, they've also been blindsided by leaks of materials that were supposed to be safely tucked away in Jeffco's evidence vault, including the gunmen's "basement tapes" and Harris's journal writings. Crime-scene photos have also made their way to reporters and other parties, although none have been published yet.
Jeffco's handling of the evidence has been a sore point for Don Fleming, the lead plaintiff in the families' open-records battle. "I don't see why these people should have immunity for fabricating and lying and destroying evidence," says Fleming, whose daughter, Kelly, was killed in the library. "If they did nothing wrong on April 20, what they did afterward was criminal."
9. WHAT ARE THE POLICE STILL HIDING?
See questions # 1-8, above.
10. WHAT CAN THE LEGISLATURE DO?
Last fall, Don Lee found himself on a panel at a youth-violence summit in Oregon alongside administrators involved in responding to the shooting at Santana High School in Santee, California, last spring. Lee was struck by how much had been accomplished in Santee in a few months compared to what has happened in Colorado over the past three years.
"It's just incredible how the community and the stakeholders got together and really made some changes in how they deal with things," Lee says. "We have done some things, but it's frustrating to try to get all the stakeholders together here and get the information on the table. It's been difficult for us because of the lawsuits."
Yet the impasse over Columbine began long before the lawsuits were filed. It began with half-truths and stall tactics, boobytraps that didn't exist and search warrants that were never mentioned.
"When we started out, we never thought of any kind of lawsuit," says Joe Kechter, Matt Kechter's father. "But then all the lies started, and holding back information, and it makes you wonder. If we could have got the information we needed, I don't think any of us would be here right now."
Lee says he doesn't know yet what sort of legislation might come out of his probe, but he does have some sense of the general areas that need to be addressed. The Columbine experience could prompt proposals to put some teeth in the state's open-records act, for example, so that bureaucrats who suppress important documents might receive more than a wrist slap for ignoring the law. It could lead to strengthening victims'-rights laws, making it easier to obtain information once an investigation is concluded; to protect the privacy of victims' families; and to lower the boom on officials who provide false information about the circumstances of a loved one's death.
Some progress has already been made in clearing the barriers that keep schools and law enforcement from sharing information about possibly dangerous students. But several Columbine families say that much remains to be done about threat assessment and prompt notification of parents, about training police for rapid deployment situations and organizing a proper command-and-communication structure for such major emergencies as a school rampage.
Re-establishing trust in law enforcement in Jefferson County may be the most formidable challenge of all, one the legislature has little ability to address. For the Browns and for many of the families of the injured and the dead, the task may be impossible.
"It's been almost three years," notes Judy Brown. "People call us about their kids being threatened at school, and they ask us what they should do. I honestly don't know what to tell them. Would I go to the police now? It sounds terrible, but I think I'd handle it myself."
Several families, including the Kechters, still have children in Jefferson County schools. "If anything like this ever happens again, I won't stop this time from going in," says Joe Kechter. "No way. They'll have to shoot me."
To read related stories, see our Columbine Reader