In Search of Lost Time

A long-hidden document helps clear a Denver cop -- and raises new questions about the official version of the Columbine attack.

"All this information was placed on the final draft of the time line" and published in the sheriff's report, county attorney William Tuthill wrote to a CBS attorney on February 20, 2001. [Editor's note: Alan Prendergast served as a paid consultant to CBS on the project.]

In May 2001, Westword asked the county attorney's office to review its position on the matter, "since the claim that no time-stamping log or key exists for the 911 calls is at variance with the evidence found in the sheriff's report and other information." The written request was simply ignored.

The 38-page log of 911 calls, listing each by time and event, wasn't made public until El Paso released it as part of the supplemental materials to its report two weeks ago -- almost exactly two years after Rohrbough first announced his suspicions that a police officer may have been involved in the death of his son. The log contains handwritten notations by investigators that indicate the document was studied carefully during the preparation of Jefferson County's report, which was released in May 2000.

Scene of the crime: El Paso investigators retrace police actions at Columbine.
Scene of the crime: El Paso investigators retrace police actions at Columbine.

Jeffco's reluctance to produce the call log, even to put to rest an allegation of a police-involved shooting, incenses Rohrbough's attorney, Barry Arrington. "If Jefferson County had released this two years ago when we asked for it, we could have saved untold amounts of anguish and sorrow," he says. "Their actions have been utterly baffling to me. I don't know why there was this circle-the-wagons mentality from the very beginning.

"When Brian started raising questions about their report, their response wasn't, 'Let's talk about this and see if we can resolve it.' Their response was, 'We're right, you're wrong. We're not going to talk to you.'"

Asked to explain her office's failure to produce the document over the past two years, Assistant County Attorney Lily Oeffler offered a brief response, relayed through another office employee. Oeffler described the 911 log as a "draft" rather than a final product and said the county had focused on requests for time-stamping of the tapes, which it was unable to provide because the communications equipment in the sheriff's office had changed. But the open-records requests specifically sought logs as well as time-stamping, and the judge's orders required the release of "backup materials" used to prepare the sheriff's report as well as final documents.

The times listed for the 911 calls include more than a few significant deviations from the official attack timeline Jefferson County issued two years ago. Even when adjusted by nearly three minutes in order to be "synchronized" with the sheriff's office dispatch time, the log paints a very different picture of the police response to the shootings than has been previously reported.

According to the official report, Jeffco deputy Neil Gardner, the school resource officer and the first cop on scene, pulled into the Columbine parking lot at 11:24 a.m. Supposedly his arrival "distracted" Eric Harris, who at that moment was outside the west doors, firing at teacher Patty Nielson. Harris turned and fired at Gardner. Gardner fired back; Harris retreated into the building, only to re-emerge two minutes later and fire again on Gardner and arriving deputy Paul Smoker. In other words, the first officers on the scene engaged one of the gunmen in two firefights before the killings in the library began. It's a scenario Jeffco has clung to stubbornly, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, including key details in its own officers' interviews and dispatch calls ("More Whoppers From Jeffco," October 25, 2001).

The 911 log refutes this fable decisively. The first call about shots fired at Columbine, a call from student Lindsie Macy made from a pay phone outside the school, begins at 11:24 a.m. "Someone's shooting a gun out here," Macy told the operator. "Some girl over there, I think she's paralyzed."

At 11:25, while Macy is still on the phone, the dispatcher notifies Gardner about a "girl down" in the parking lot. Already tipped to the shooting on a school radio, Gardner received the call while en route to the school, so he couldn't have been in a gunfight with Harris at that point. In fact, Macy noted Gardner's arrival during her call: "A cop just pulled up."

Other evidence indicates that Gardner's encounter with Harris took place as much as five minutes later than the official report indicates. Smoker's radio transmissions indicate that he didn't arrive outside the west doors until around 11:30 -- just in time to hear the shooting starting in the library. His gun battle with Harris appears to have occurred after the massacre was over, more than ten minutes later than Jeffco claims it did.

Long before anyone made any accusations about a coverup at Columbine, Brian Rohrbough says, the sheriff's investigators were already on the defensive. "During their one meeting with us, they agreed to have additional meetings," he recalls. "They said they knew we were going to have questions. Then, right after that, they stopped talking to us. Nothing had changed from our end. We didn't know anything yet. But if you have nothing to hide, why would you be afraid to answer questions?"

Three years later, the mystery over who killed Daniel Rohrbough may at last be over. But the greater mystery of why the sheriff's office continues to misstate the facts about Columbine continues.

To read earlier coverage, go to the Columbine Reader.

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