Deeper Into Columbine

The settlements. The spin. The remaining secrets.

As the GOP candidate for sheriff in Jefferson County, Cook is the likely successor to John Stone after next week's election. He's facing two write-in candidates, but his three decades of law-enforcement experience has made him the heavy favorite in the race since last spring, when Stone decided not to seek a second term. One of his opponents, Columbine parent Steve Schweitzberger, even declared that should he win the race, his first official act would be to designate Cook as his undersheriff; Cook says he appreciates the offer but would rather have the top job, thank you.

The prospect of Cook taking the helm has raised hopes among the Columbine families of a new era of detente with the sheriff's office, an end to the bunker mentality that has gripped the agency since the massacre. "I think Russ Cook could be a real key to what we could learn," says Brian Rohrbough. "I can't see a better way for him to establish credibility than to find out what happened at Columbine and tell the families involved."

Cook responds cautiously to such a challenge. He says he realizes that the firestorm of criticism the office has received over its handling of the attack and the subsequent investigation has demoralized the troops and eroded public trust. But he's not in a position - not yet -- to promise that still-secret files will suddenly become public.

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 still don't know what the truth is with Columbine," he says. "I'm not privy to the information the sheriff's office has. I presume that most of what can be released has been released. I certainly don't want to traumatize people further."

At the same time, he adds, "At some point, I'm going to need to talk to the families. I want them to be comfortable with the sheriff's office."

Cook has long ties with many of the top commanders in Jeffco; some of them, including John Stone, worked with him on the Lakewood police force back in the 1970s. Although he's avoided attacking Stone directly, it's no secret that Cook has had his disagreements with the current sheriff. He backed Stone's opponent four years ago and has differing ideas about crisis management -- for example, to what degree an elected official should refuse to talk, "on the advice of the county attorney," when faced with demands for information about a litigious matter such as Columbine.

"The county attorney gives advice to policy-makers," he notes. "It's advice, not policy. Someone else has to decide if it's good advice or not. When you tell the public you're not releasing something for their own good, they become suspicious. And if you're trying to avoid litigation, that might be the wrong reason.

"You cannot hide behind lawyers. I've probably been guilty of the same thing, but ultimately, you're responsible. You're an elected official."

Cook doesn't expect to be making any sudden, sweeping changes in the sheriff's office. "I'm going to be very slow to make any calculated moves at all," he says. "The people who work there are longtime county employees who I've known for a long time, and I will take my time evaluating their performance."

One of the most frustrating consequences of the Columbine litigation, he suggests, is that dedicated police officers have been unable to respond directly to the questions that have been raised, unable to tell their own stories about April 20 and its aftermath. Cook would like to remove that muzzle.

"The whole department has been living under a cloud," he says. "I would like to see that cloud lifted."

The Filmmaker

Shambling on stage like a fuzzy orca, Michael Moore arrives 45 minutes late for a Denver International Film Festival panel on gun violence and cinema. Blame it on America's current climate of fear: Moore missed his flight out of Newark because of terrorist-screening overload, then got trapped on an underground train at Denver International Airport for half an hour because of a security breach.

It's a wonderful bit of irony for a guy who's just made a movie about this country's obsession with guns and the fears engendered by that obsession, and Moore can't resist chewing on it. Before the panel discussion ends, he'll sing a song about items banned from airplanes, to the tune of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" (" swords and sabers, six sticks of dynamite, five cat-tle prrrrods...").

The tone of the panel, which also features Columbine parent Tom Mauser and earnest film critics and up-and-coming directors, shifts abruptly after Moore shows up, from somber dialogue to stand-up diatribe. Soon Moore is off and running on his favorite topics: stupid white men, the stupid occupant of the White House, the stupidity of capitalism, of males in general -- an orgy of self-loathing, really, couched as a denunciation of evil Amerika.

"I think Mother Nature is going to get rid of [men] because we're becoming a menace to the planet," he says. "What good are we? Nature is just going to weed us out...That's the other defect, we're Americans... Our ethic is everyone for himself, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, beat up on the poor, me-me-me-me-me-me. As individuals, we're very generous, but when we put ourselves together as a society, it's 'Fuck you.' Folks, the fish rots from the head down. When you've got a man in the Oval Office who thinks it's okay to launch a pre-emptive strike and kill first --" [Wild applause from slavishly adoring audience].

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