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The sign on the door at the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office read: "News Conference: Go up stairs and turn right." Reporters who followed the instructions found themselves in a parking lot.
It wasn't the first time that Jeffco's finest have sent the press in the wrong direction since the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School left fifteen dead. Was it another cover-up, or just further proof that, within the beleaguered agency, the right hand rarely knows what the left is doing?
The hastily called press conference provided plenty of ammo for conspiracy buffs and law-enforcement apologists alike. Even when JCSO officials try to do the right thing, they can't seem to get their story straight; last week's performance by Sheriff Ted Mink, the agency's fourth leader in five years, was no exception.
A mortified Mink stood before the TV cameras and announced that a crucial police report from 1997, which detailed the early criminal mischief of killers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, had only just come to his attention. But the pages Mink then distributed to reporters weren't quite what he said they were.
The latest piece of paperwork to come dribbling out of the sheriff's office is a report by Deputy Mark Burgess, dated August 7, 1997, noting contact with an anonymous "concerned citizen" who wanted the police to investigate Eric Harris's Web site. Burgess sent the report and several pages from the site to investigator John Hicks. In these online postings, Harris boasted of his nocturnal "missions" with Klebold and another classmate to vandalize cars and houses in their neighborhood, shoot off fireworks and a "sawed-off BB gun" and experiment with crude bombs. Hicks fielded a similar complaint from Randy and Judy Brown seven months later when the couple gave him several pages from Harris's site that referenced bomb-making and a death threat against their son, Brooks.
What Jeffco did or didn't do in response to the Brown complaint has been a source of considerable mystery and stonewalling since their report was first uncovered days after the Columbine massacre. Initially, Jeffco officials denied meeting with the Browns or finding any evidence that merited investigation. Yet a draft of a 1998 affidavit for a warrant to search Harris's home that surfaced two years after the massacre shows that the Browns did meet with Hicks and that another investigator had matched Harris's descriptions of pipe bombs to a bomb found in a field ("Chronology of a Big Fat Lie," April 19, 2001). The discovery of an even earlier complaint about Harris, which has eluded homicide investigators and numerous open-records requests over the past four years, has stirred more suspicion and criticism.
Mink said he'd learned of the 1997 report only two weeks ago, when it was found tucked in a three-ring binder. "This discovery and its implications are upsetting to me and my department," he said. "The obvious implication...is that the sheriff's office had some knowledge of Eric Harris's and Dylan Klebold's activities in the years prior to the Columbine shootings."
Mink has asked Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar to conduct an independent investigation into the matter. While praising Mink for releasing the 1997 report, some victims' families question whether Salazar's investigation will lead anywhere if it doesn't also probe the various contradictory stories officials have offered about the Brown complaint. "I don't see how they can get to the bottom of this if they don't look at the whole history of the search warrant," says Brian Rohrbough, whose fifteen-year-old son, Daniel, was murdered at Columbine.
Salazar's task may be even more daunting than he realizes. The Web writings that were found with the August 1997 report, while containing some previously unreleased material, appear to be of later origin. They include a handwritten page of URLs and several pages dealing with pipe bombs and Harris's likes and dislikes -- all of which the Browns have identified as part of a package of materials they gave to a deputy in the spring of 1998 that was subsequently misplaced.
The "new" material, which predates those documents, describes six missions Klebold and Harris undertook dating back to early 1997. But those pages also include references to The Lost World, a Steven Spielberg movie that wasn't released until November 1997, and to an incident in which Harris threw a snowball at Brooks Brown's car, cracking the windshield. According to the Browns, the snowball incident occurred during the winter of 1997-98. "We have a receipt for the windshield repair in March of 1998," Randy Brown says.
In other words, all of the Web pages the sheriff's office presented as part of the 1997 documents are printouts from Harris's site that were made months after Burgess's report -- probably by the Browns in the course of their 1998 complaint. So what happened to the Harris writings Burgess indicated that he was attaching to his report?
"We can't give you what we don't have knowledge of," says JCSO spokeswoman Jacki Tallman. "We've asked everyone to search for reports related to Columbine many times. If one deputy chooses not to forward something, we can't stop that from happening. But if something more is found, it will be released."
The latest document hunt comes at a time when victims' families -- as well as the National Archives, Attorney General Salazar and several other interested parties -- are challenging a federal magistrate's unusual order calling for the destruction of sealed depositions taken from the killers' parents as part of a recently settled lawsuit. It also comes on the heels of the release of a videotape that shows Harris and Klebold test-firing their sawed-off shotguns and other weapons in the mountains a few weeks before the attack on their school; as reported in Westwordtwo years ago, that video was edited in the school lab and seen by other students prior to the massacre ("Back to School," October 25, 2001).
John Hicks no longer works for the sheriff's office and has not responded to media requests for interviews. Also no longer employed there is division chief John Kiekbusch, who told reporters ten days after the massacre that the Brown report was a minor, isolated complaint that didn't merit much investigation. At the time, the official line about the Columbine attack was that it came "out of nowhere" and could not have been prevented.
These days, that's a difficult line to maintain as each new revelation adds to the pile of clues and warning signs Klebold and Harris left behind as they plotted their apocalypse. ("Only the Kremlin on May Day has seen more red flags," as one Denver Post editorial put it.) The latest discovery helps to fill in the story of how the two killers' vengeful behavior escalated from sneaking out at night to get drunk and set off fireworks to firing guns at houses, building pipe bombs and making lists of people who deserved to die.
A remaining question is whether people with badges were paying any attention. And if so, why they did nothing.
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