The Paper Chase

Elvis is dead -- but Columbine lives on.

The people have a right to know -- but public officials have a slippery grasp on that basic tenet of democracy.

On Monday, Attorney General Ken Salazar and Jefferson County District Attorney Dave Thomas convened the first meeting of a task force designed to clear the air around Columbine -- or at least clarify what documents exist concerning that deadly day. But within minutes, the air was thicker than ever, heavy with suspicion and distrust. The first speaker, Randy Brown, complained that the task force's composition was slanted -- and it is, since three of its members are Jeffco bureaucrats, the very officials that Brown and his wife, Judy, have accused of keeping too many secrets. That could be changed, Salazar suggested, and a system imposed to ensure the fair release of thousands of pages of documents. "I think what we should do is make as much information public as we possibly can," he said.

But the real obstacle facing this task force isn't deciding what information should be made public; it's learning what isn't in the record. Anywhere. Many of the critical details about Columbine simply don't exist in hard-copy form -- whether or not a task force is willing to release them (or an investigation insider is eager to leak them). For example, when a multi-agency team debriefed members of the Denver Police Department about the events of April 20, 1999, it didn't audiotape the interviews -- in defiance of recognized procedure. Some interviews were summarized in note form. There are gaps all through the paper trail.

Which means the ultimate source of the truth is people, not paper.

That's why the families whose children died at Columbine still consider a legislative commission the last, best hope for ever knowing what happened at the school. Not a Jeffco grand jury: After almost three years of stonewalling, they don't trust Jefferson County. Not El Paso County investigators, whose investigation -- due by the end of the month -- was requested by those same Jeffco officials. Not a statewide grand jury: U.S. Attorney John Suthers rejected that request last month. Not the federal courts, since Judge Lewis Babcock threw out most of their claims there last November. And not the governor's commission: Without subpoena power, that group had no power. That leaves the legislature, where elected representatives of the people could uncover what the people have a right to know.

A few years ago, most Coloradans would not have considered the legislature the last, best hope of anything. "I will never agree that an issue this important should ever be done inside this body with six politicians in an election year," said Representative Cheri Jahn, an opponent of Representative Don Lee's proposal for a Columbine commission, after its defeat two weeks ago by the House Civil Justice and Judiciary Committee.

But a few years ago, Colorado hadn't seen the stonewalling and selective memories that sprang up after Columbine, where the sixteenth casualty was the truth. So Representative Lee isn't giving up. He's offering a replacement proposal, one that would limit the scope of the commission but still give it the ability to subpoena living, breathing sources of information.

Now all he needs to do is convince those witnesses to history to tell the truth rather than display contempt -- for the process, and for the public's right to know.

Two decades ago, a legislative committee conducting a special investigation into the Colorado Organized Crime Strike Force became the greatest show in town. It had everything: cocaine, cops, Cadillacs, Elvis, even Chuck Green.

The hearings were the last shot in the ugliest battle of the war between the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News, and Michael Howard, grandson of the co-founder of the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain, was both that battle's ammunition and its target. Howard had joined the second-place News back in the '60s, working his way up to the editor position even as the paper took over the Post in circulation. But along the way, he'd also picked up a nasty cocaine habit that ultimately cost him his job in 1980 -- and could have lost a lot of other people their jobs, too.

Except in those days, the people didn't have the right to know much of anything.

Unless it sold papers. In 1981, fresh from therapy and a suicide attempt, Howard began to talk about his addiction, unburdening first to Rocky Mountain Magazine, then to the Today show, and finally to the Post, which sent an investigative reporter and then-assistant managing editor Chuck Green to conduct a bedside chat with Howard, hospitalized for high blood pressure in April 1982. During that conversation, Howard told the Post that he'd "blown a million dollars of cocaine up my nose" during his six years as editor of the News -- and that his close relationships with cops and other powerful Colorado figures had made it all possible.

Two months later, Howard was called to testify before the Colorado Senate Judiciary Committee, which was investigating the Organized Crime Strike Force, a unit that then-attorney general J.D. MacFarlane was in the process of disbanding because of allegations of impropriety -- improprieties that included cops looking the other way when Howard was on a tear. For several years, Ron Pietrafeso, a Denver Police Department detective assigned to the strike force, had served as Howard's bodyguard; he'd gotten the job through Captain Jerry Kennedy, the head of the DPD's vice squad who also supervised police moonlighting duties -- including guarding Elvis Presley on his visits to Denver throughout the '70s.

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