Deeper Into Columbine

The settlements. The spin. The remaining secrets.

The plaintiffs extracted money from the killers' parents but no fresh information about the events leading up the massacre. The negotiations with the sheriff's office were just as tight-lipped.

"It's a problem," Wahlberg admits. "Trying to get information was so frustrating. I couldn't believe the way the sheriff's office treated us. But they're concerned about liability, and so are the parents of Harris and Klebold. How do you even express remorse for these other families that lost children without sounding like you're at fault? Eliminating the specter of litigation would go a long way toward letting this community heal."

Early in the Columbine litigation, Wahlberg and other interested parties went to Governor Bill Owens to see if there was a way to establish a state funding mechanism that would compensate victims and allow public officials to divulge what they knew about the tragedy without fear of lawsuits. Owens declined to intervene, and Wahlberg moved on to other concerns.

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.

He is now serving as a consultant, without charge, to families of victims of the September 11 attacks.

The Dissenter

Most days, Brian Rohrbough can be found working in his auto-sound shop in Sheridan, a place his son Dan used to visit after school. Nothing much has changed in the past three years except that Dan is no longer there.

The shop is bright, busy and cluttered with projects. Other than the piles of court filings and other paperwork stacked in one office, there is little to indicate the waking nightmare Rohrbough has been living since April 20, 1999, the day his fifteen-year-old son was shot down on the steps of Columbine.

Suspicious of the official version of the attack from the start, Rohrbough soon emerged as the most visible spokesman for several Columbine families who've fought relentlessly to learn the true circumstances of the shootings and the police response that followed. It's been a long, bruising battle, one that has put Rohrbough at odds with Jefferson County officials, state lawmakers and others seeking a tidy "closure" to the messy tragedy. And it's far from over.

Three months ago, Rohrbough, his ex-wife, Sue Petrone, and the parents of four other slain students -- Lauren Townsend, Kelly Fleming, Kyle Velasquez and Matt Kechter -- agreed to settle their lawsuit against the sheriff's office. Because of the formidable immunity that protects government agencies from being sued for their actions, the plaintiffs believed they had little choice but to settle; the alternative was a costly appeal of Judge Babcock's dismissal of their claims and the prospect that Jefferson County would go after them for the county's own legal fees.

But even in settlement, Rohrbough's group won a key concession. The settlement states that the county won't oppose the plaintiffs if they seek access to certain sensitive Columbine materials, such as the killers' homemade videos, in connection with other litigation.

"I was encouraging my people not to settle, but no one had the stomach for it," Rohrbough says now. "No one wanted the risk of the fees. The real incentive was that we got them to open the door to us under court restrictions. We'll have the right to see the evidence under protective orders."

Rohrbough believes that a review of those portions of the investigation that haven't been disclosed to the public could help answer a range of questions about the killers' actions, what school employees and police officials knew about them before the attack, and what the police did after the attack was under way. "We want to know a lot of things," he says. "Who gave the orders not to go in? What was the real chain of command? Why did they lie to me about what happened to Dan?"

The changing stories about his son's death have been particularly galling to Rohrbough. The sheriff's investigators initially told him that Dan was wounded by Klebold, fell to the steps, then was killed by him at close range minutes later. The scenario didn't match up with the available ballistics evidence, and Rohrbough resisted it from the start. "Dan wouldn't have just laid there," he insists. "He would have struggled, because he wasn't Klebold and Harris. He wanted to live. There was no bullet, no shell casings to support their claims. But it wouldn't have occurred to me that it might have been a police officer without Jim Taylor."

Hours after the shootings, Arapahoe County deputy Jim Taylor told Sue Petrone that he'd seen Dan killed. Taylor and his wife had been friends of Petrone's for years, and his story -- later recounted on tape -- included several persuasive details, even though it clashed with the official version, which stated that Dan was shot before any police officers arrived on the scene. Taylor's account, along with other unreconcilable details in the physical evidence, prompted Rohrbough and Petrone to accuse a Denver SWAT officer of mistakenly shooting their son during the chaotic effort to rescue students.

The allegation angered law-enforcement officials and brought a wave of hate mail to Rohrbough's door. Cited as an eyewitness in court filings, Taylor at first denied that he'd ever told Dan's parents such a tale. Confronted with the tape of the conversation, which Petrone had secretly recorded, he told an internal-affairs investigator that he'd been "trying to console the family" and "help with the grieving" by placing himself at the scene of Dan's death ("There Ought to Be a Law," March 7). Arapahoe County Sheriff Pat Sullivan fired him two days later.

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