Dave's Dilemma

Playing hide-and-seek with the truth -- the Jeffco way.

The excruciatingly inept program has been blasted by the hometown crowd for its factual inaccuracies, pompous tone and inch-deep "insights" into the killers' motivations and prior behavior. Part of the problem was a skimpy budget; the TAG team spent exactly one week doing fieldwork in Littleton and came away with 52 interviews, only nineteen of them on camera. (In contrast, the Sixty Minutes II hour on Columbine that aired last year was based on interviews with hundreds of sources over six months.) But a greater hurdle was access, the TAG shrinks say.

The psychological profilers were unable to speak with the parents of the gunmen, obtain their medical records or view the so-called "basement tapes," the videos Harris and Klebold made discussing their attack plans, which are currently sealed by court order. In one oddball scene, Thomas is featured calling a district court judge, pleading for permission to let the profilers see the tapes. A lawsuit filed by TAG seeking to make the tapes available to "professionals," but not the general public, is still pending.

Last Saturday, at a four-hour presentation to the media and interested parties, the TAG team struggled gamely to show that its findings have more meat on them than the documentary would suggest. Alternately praising the district attorney's office ("an agency that is truly invested in seeking the truth") and his own colleagues ("the most competent group of investigators anyone could assemble to answer Dave Thomas's questions"), project director Steven Pitt tried to make the case that TAG had plumbed the depths of the killers' psyches. Aside from some hints of animal torture, though, the team's account of Klebold's and Harris's backgrounds and behaviors offered nothing that hasn't been previously reported.

The pitchman: Dave Thomas pleads for the release of the "Basement Tapes" on A&E's Columbine show.
The pitchman: Dave Thomas pleads for the release of the "Basement Tapes" on A&E's Columbine show.

But then, the threat-assessment group had set out to assess only certain kinds of threats. One area of inquiry the group conspicuously ignored was any contact authorities had with Klebold and Harris prior to the attack on the school, including the pair's year-long participation in a juvenile diversion program (supervised by Thomas's office) and the bungled 1998 sheriff's investigation of Harris's Internet death threats. Dave Thomas didn't ask them to look into such matters, Pitt explains, much less probe what could be learned from the failed intervention efforts.

For his part, Thomas seems pleased with the TAG's numbingly obvious findings -- for example, that Klebold and Harris were angry and suicidal young men, out for infamy and revenge. "It causes us all to do a great deal of introspection," he says. "I think that's good."

While the response to the psychiatric autopsy was underwhelming, Thomas's records task force has received some pretty scathing reviews, too. As several Columbine family members pointed out during the group's first meeting last month, the panel includes several officials with a stake in not disclosing records, including Assistant County Attorney Lily Oeffler (who has opposed numerous family and media records requests in court), sheriff's investigator Kate Battan (ditto) and Assistant District Attorney Kathy Sasak. One Columbine parent, John Ireland, has since joined the task force, but the group has resisted efforts to include Randy Brown, a vocal critic of Thomas and the sheriff's office, to assist their mission.

How successful the panel will be in rooting out more Columbine documents is hard to say; no one seems to know exactly what's left to be found. A month ago, Battan told the task force that the sheriff's office has released close to 17,000 pages and that the 5,000 pages left in the vault consist mostly of medical records, autopsy information, crime-scene photos and other court-sealed documents. Last week, the sheriff's office announced that it would release another 5,000 pages -- but it turns out that these are an entirely different 5,000 pages than the 5,000 pages Battan was talking about. Three years after Columbine, Jeffco is still unable to come up with an accurate count of which documents the agency has regarding the tragedy -- or even a rough estimate within, say, 5,000 pages.

Thomas's own position on the question of disclosure, like much of his Columbine involvement, is a puzzle. Months ago, Westword filed an open-records request with his office, urging the DA to lead the way by releasing his own as-yet-undisclosed records dealing with the diversion program. Thomas's office declined, citing a strict interpretation of the juvenile code. Had Klebold and Harris survived the attack on Columbine and been charged with homicide as adults, their juvenile records would be available to anyone. Because they didn't live to see felony charges, their diversion records remain sealed.

Even if more documents of significance emerge from the records hunt, they probably won't answer the most haunting questions about Columbine. Those answers might come from persuading the keepers of the secrets to talk. But Thomas, a man of secrets himself, has declined to call a grand jury to investigate police misconduct over Columbine, saying there's no evidence to support such a move. Instead, he's offered to conduct an informal inquiry to find out why police failed to follow up on the Brown family's complaints about Eric Harris a year before the attack.

Thomas made that promise to victims' families four months ago. The inquiry has been "on hold" ever since, pending the outcome of the El Paso investigation. Once that report is released, Thomas may be inspired, once again, to switch hats -- and enter Year Four of the post-Columbine era suitably attired.

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