Deeper Into Columbine

The settlements. The spin. The remaining secrets.

In another deposition in the case, investigator Kirk Beaulieu admitted that it's still policy in Jefferson County for individual SWAT members to report to headquarters, then proceed to the scene of trouble to stage a response -- a time-consuming procedure that hasn't changed since the Columbine shootings, even though other agencies' SWAT teams are trained to head directly to the scene. Beaulieu, you may recall, was one of the first SWAT guys to reach the classroom where Sanders lay dying, more than three hours after students and other teachers began trying to summon help for him.

Although the county admitted no wrongdoing in the Philp case, you can see why it was smart to settle the matter: Who needs all this dubious police work coming out in court? Small wonder, then, that Columbine families continue to doubt if your office has produced all the records it's been ordered to produce concerning the tragedy, if your people have come clean about what they know about Harris and Klebold -- and if the "lessons" for law enforcement have truly been learned.

Sheriff Stone, your work is almost done. Perhaps in the months ahead you will have the leisure to read Brooks Brown's book and find out how your campaign to discredit him devastated him and his family. Perhaps not. But take notice: The investigation of Columbine is far from over.

The settlement with the killers' parents was hammered out by attorney Steve Wahlberg.
Darren Albert
The settlement with the killers' parents was hammered out by attorney Steve Wahlberg.
Scattershot: Michael Moore takes aim at America's gun culture.
Scattershot: Michael Moore takes aim at America's gun culture.

The Negotiator

In the aftermath of the Columbine shootings, the hunt for culprits began well before the funerals ended. By the next morning, everyone knew that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had committed the carnage, but had they acted alone? Who supplied their weapons? What did their parents know? What role did police and school officials play in the tragedy? And what about violent video games, drugs, Marilyn Manson and other presumably pernicious influences?

There were almost as many theories of liability as there were lawyers involved in the case. And that number quickly swelled to alarming proportions.

Going to meeting after meeting of plaintiffs' attorneys, who gathered around large conference tables at law firms across the city, Steve Wahlberg began to have the uneasy feeling that he was sinking into a quagmire. The meetings featured long discussions about what claims might be filed, which court to file them in, which defendants to name and what deadlines they were up against.

Wahlberg had been brought in as co-counsel by famed bulldog Walter Gerash to help represent students Sean Graves and Lance Kirklin, both of whom had been shot and critically wounded outside the school in the early stages of the attack. It didn't take many meetings for Wahlberg to realize that his clients were facing the prospect of extremely complex, protracted litigation -- and that avoiding that process might prove even trickier.

He decided to advance what would turn out to be a controversial proposal. "I know that litigation is the hammer we will have to bring down," he announced at one meeting, "but I've got a kid in a wheelchair, Sean Graves. I was talking to him at his house last night, and he could use some kind of long-term medical trust. And I don't know if there's enough money here. If we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on litigation -- well, I want to go on record early that I support a settlement."

Wahlberg credits Graves with keeping him focused on a fundamental truth about Columbine. No amount of punitive litigation was going to bring back the dead or help the injured recover, and most of those who had suffered the worst injuries -- including Graves (who has since regained some mobility), Kirklin, Richard Castaldo, Anne Marie Hochhalter and Mark Taylor -- would require extensive medical care. So why not find out what resources were available among the potential pool of defendants and make the best possible deal for all concerned?

"This was an idea out of the mouth of an eleventh-grader," Wahlberg says now. "Do we really need World War III? How much money do they have, and will they give it to us?"

Over the next two years, Wahlberg emerged as the point man in what he describes as a "team effort" by the lawyers of victims' families to settle Columbine. The effort was only partly successful; but in light of the differing, often opposing goals of the families involved in lawsuits, it worked remarkably well. Wahlberg's pivotal role owed a great deal to his well-established and wide-ranging contacts within Denver's legal circles, as well as his reputation for evenhandedness.

"I try to bring a level of professionalism to what I do," he says. "It's more than being diplomatic. I think it's at the core of being able to get things done. All these petty fights my colleagues get in -- I'm critical of that, because they're screwing around and wasting time."

From previous cases, Wahlberg already had working relationships with several attorneys representing potential defendants, including the parents of Harris and Klebold. He soon learned that the Harrises had a maximum of $300,000 in homeowners' insurance coverage and the Klebolds $1.3 million; that the carrier for Mark Manes, who sold Klebold his TEC-9 semi-automatic handgun, could kick in another $720,000; that Philip Duran, who introduced Klebold and Harris to Manes, could provide $250,000; and that Robyn Anderson, the honor student who fronted for the gunmen in a straw purchase of their other guns at the Tanner Gun Show, had coverage amounting to $300,000. In other words, if all the claims were settled at the insurers' policy limits, the total pool of cash available from that group would be close to $3,000,000, with a small percentage set aside to address any future claims.

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