Deeper Into Columbine

The settlements. The spin. The remaining secrets.

Memo To:
Jefferson County Sheriff John P. Stone


I know that you're a busy man. You've got a lot on your mind and only a few weeks to go before you clean out your desk. So I'll try to keep this short.

Talking out of school: Once targeted by Eric Harris, Brooks Brown has written a book about Columbine.
John Johnston
Talking out of school: Once targeted by Eric Harris, Brooks Brown has written a book about Columbine.
Unsettled: Parent Brian Rohrbough declined to join in the settlement with the killers' parents.
John Johnston
Unsettled: Parent Brian Rohrbough declined to join in the settlement with the killers' parents.

I realize, too, that you're tired of hearing about Columbine. Many people are. Folks in my business have the attention span of a hyperactive gnat, and most of them would rather move on to other horrors: the Beltway sniper, chronic wasting disease, the new fall sitcoms.

But it's different for you. On April 20, 1999, the worst high school shooting in American history happened on your watch, when seniors Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed thirteen people, injured two dozen more and then turned their guns on themselves. Your name and your department's reputation will be forever linked to this tragedy.

Frankly, one reason so many questions remain about Columbine, more than three years after the event, is that your people tried to thwart public scrutiny through a strategy of stonewall and spin control. Issuing an official report riddled with inaccuracies and glaring omissions, ducking the governor's review commission on the advice of the county attorney, lobbying state lawmakers to squash a legislative probe, cranking out self-serving press releases to fade the heat rising after each embarrassing revelation -- the basement tapes, the search warrant, the Harris diary, the confusion over who killed Daniel Rohrbough, to name a few -- all of this has done little to put the matter to rest.

Perhaps you believe that the recent settlements between the county and various families of the dead and injured, including the $1.5 million coughed up to settle the lawsuit filed by the family of slain teacher Dave Sanders, closes the book on the shootings. It may surprise you to learn that there are still lawsuits pending (although none against your office) and that there are still people searching for the truth about Columbine, some of whom discuss their concerns in the following pages.

Sheriff, have you ever managed to wade through the 16,000 pages of documents released by your office over the past two years? (Released reluctantly, I might add, trickling out over months and years in response to court orders.) I wish I knew what you think about that material; our correspondence has languished, unfortunately, ever since my last letter to you was shanghaied by the county attorney's office, which issued a predictably obfuscatory response ("More Whoppers From Jeffco," October 25, 2001). At the very least, what the ballistics records reveal about the use of police firepower that day should trouble you (see "Going Ballistic").

There are so many haunting loose ends. Take the case of Sarah Cudworth, an eighteen-year-old interviewed by an Arapahoe County investigator less than two weeks after the shootings. Cudworth told the deputy that she'd been introduced to Eric Harris in 1997 by her friend Robert Craig, a Columbine honor student who killed his stepfather and himself later that year. Like Harris, Craig was a bright, moody young man who hung out with a disaffected crowd but was not a member of the Trenchcoat Mafia. His stepfather happened to be a former sheriff's deputy.

"Sarah told me they were all drawn together by their intelligence and boredom with school," the investigator wrote in his report. "Harris had a lot of hate, but he never told her about any plans to hurt anyone. Harris did talk about how he was harassed."

Eric Harris and Robert Craig. You'd think such a startling nexus of anger and despair would require some followup, but there is no trace of any subsequent interviews with Cudworth or anyone else on that point.

Or take a more current example, if you like. Recently, gun-rights activist Duncan Philp settled a lawsuit against two of your officers for $20,000 -- an amazing sum for what seems, at first glance, to be a case of a faulty traffic ticket. Philp was pulled over by a Jeffco deputy last December on his way to a protest rally at the home of Columbine parent Tom Mauser, who has become an outspoken advocate for tougher gun laws since his son Daniel was killed in the school library by Harris and Dylan Klebold.

This was no random stop. Your deputies had Philp under surveillance that night and had compiled an intelligence file on him, not unlike the Denver Police Department's notorious "spy files." Philp beat the traffic ticket -- apparently, your deputies didn't know that a motorist doesn't have to signal a turn when pulling out of a private parking lot -- and then sued for alleged constitutional violations.

In a deposition, Don Estep, a member of Jeffco's intelligence unit and the FBI's multi-agency terrorism task force for Colorado, made several damaging admissions. He acknowledged that his unit had videotaped events the night of the protest but never logged that tape into evidence; that Philp had been cited for not having a valid Colorado driver's license when there was no proof that he was even a Colorado resident; and that a Jeffco sergeant had obtained information about Philp from the state motor vehicle database by telling a DMV official that Philp was under investigation for felony fraud, when there was no such investigation.

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