Quagmire Without End, Amen

Truth is the first casualty of war -- and Columbine.

In a belated effort to clear the air, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office offered up its souvenirs of a massacre last Thursday. It was quite a show -- but not quite enough to dispel the stink that has clung to the biggest criminal investigation in Colorado history.

For a few hours, under tight security at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds, the public was allowed to view the evidence gathered in the wake of the 1999 murders of twelve students and one teacher at Columbine High School. Thousands of pages of police reports and witness interviews, maps and crime-scene diagrams, bullet fragments and bloodstained carpet remnants, twisted shards of pipe bombs, the sawed-off shotguns and black trenchcoats and fancy knives of teenage terrorists Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold -- it was all there.

At least officials said it was. The exhibition was strictly a look-don’t-touch affair, and even looking was discouraged in many instances. Many materials were laid out in plastic bags on tables behind a barrier or tucked away in glass display cases, and some of the most intriguing items -- writings and tapes seized from the killers’ homes, for example -- were kept sealed in boxes or brown-paper wrappers as a result of various court orders, as if to shield visitors from deadly contamination.

A still photo of Eric Harris from the video he and Dylan 
Klebold made just weeks before the rampage at 
Columbine.
A still photo of Eric Harris from the video he and Dylan Klebold made just weeks before the rampage at Columbine.
A still photo of Eric Harris from the video he and Dylan Klebold made just weeks before the rampage at Columbine.
A still photo of Eric Harris from the video he and Dylan Klebold made just weeks before the rampage at Columbine.

“There is no precedent for this type of evidence viewing,” Sheriff Ted Mink told the assembled gawkers. “Every piece of evidence in the Columbine High School shootings is in this building.”

Present, but not accounted for. It was a command performance, one day only. Then everything was hauled back to the evidence vault to await transport someday to the state archives, where most of it would be accessible to nobody -- except, perhaps, a few dithering researchers of the far-flung future.

A fitting arrangement, to be sure. Like the evidence, the truth about Columbine has remained tantalizingly, maddeningly elusive. And Thursday’s grim peep show hardly put to rest the questions that have haunted victims’ families and dogged the case, largely as a result of official bungling and stonewalling.

Concurrent with the viewing, the sheriff’s office released a ninety-minute video compilation of footage Harris and Klebold shot in and around the school, including the infamous “Hitmen For Hire” video, a class project that the pair turned into a commercial for two trenchcoated killers advertising their services to bully-plagued wimps. But all of the faces in the videos, with the exception of the two stars, had been pixilated and obscured.

The press conference held by Mink, Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar and Jefferson County District Attorney Dave Thomas was even murkier than the videos. The trio had been widely commended for their efforts to release more information about the shootings and blow away the toxic fumes left by Mink’s evasive, tight-lipped predecessor, John Stone. Last fall, Salazar launched a long-overdue investigation into what the sheriff’s office knew about Harris and Klebold before the shootings (“a href="http://www.westword.com/2003-11-06/news/the-plot-sickens/">The Plot Sickens,” November 6, 2003).

But the unveiling of Salazar’s report was hardly the act of healing the attorney general seemed to think it would be. The report revealed that sheriff’s deputies had failed to pursue numerous leads that might have prevented the massacre; that the public had been grossly misled about the degree of contact the sheriff’s office had had with the killers; and that a crucial investigative file had been mysteriously “borrowed” days after the shootings, then simply disappeared. Yet the three wise men neatly ducked the issue of whether any law-enforcement official should be held accountable for such a staggering history of ineptitude, obfuscation and outright lies.

“There are things that should have been done differently,” Salazar conceded, after considerable prodding by reporters.

Quite a few things, actually. Salazar’s inquiry had been prompted by the discovery of a 1997 police report containing writings from Harris’s website, in which he boasted of vandalizing houses and building pipe bombs. But that report is only the latest in a series of “misplaced” documents that have surfaced in recent years, proving that the sheriff’s office had far more knowledge of Harris’s activities prior to the attack than Stone and his merry men had ever acknowledged. (And also proving that when the Jeffco attorney denies an open-records request, insisting that the document in question doesn’t exist, it probably has just been conveniently mislaid.)

Salazar’s investigators interviewed several current and former Jeffco officers about their dealings with Randy and Judy Brown, who’d filed several complaints about Harris’s vandalism and death threats more than a year before the attack on the school. Their recollections of the whole business were hazy, yet oddly detailed:

Michael Burgess, the deputy who took the 1997 report from a “concerned citizen” -- actually, from the Browns -- couldn’t remember the incident at all. He believes he didn’t read the Harris writings himself or he would have noted the references to pipe bombs. But he did recall going to the Browns’ house eight months later on a subsequent report of phone harassment.

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