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Anatomy of a Cover-up

Days after the Columbine shootings, Jeffco officials were already lying about what they knew. What about now?

It took five years, a state grand jury and key evidence from a reluctant witness, but families who lost children in the attack on Columbine High School finally had their worst suspicions confirmed: Top Jefferson County leaders knew something awful about prior police investigations of killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, and they'd known it since shortly after the 1999 shootings. The officials knew plenty; denied most of it, and hid as much as they could for as long as they could.

Called by Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar, the grand jury released a summary of its findings two weeks ago. Although the probe of missing police documents resulted in no indictments, it did raise questions about “suspicious” actions by the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office brass, including the shredding of a large pile of Columbine files. Most stunning of all, the report charged that a few days after the massacre, several high-ranking county officials met secretly and resolved to suppress key documents stemming from the JCSO’s earlier investigation of Harris, to treat them as if they didn't exist -- in short, to lie about them.

"It's amazing," says Brian Rohrbough, whose son, Dan, died on the steps of Columbine. "While we were planning a funeral, these guys were already planning a cover-up."

April 30, 1999: JCSO lieutenant John Kiekbusch (center) and Jeffco DA Dave Thomas (right) tell the official story of Columbine at a press conference.
Rand Carlson
April 30, 1999: JCSO lieutenant John Kiekbusch (center) and Jeffco DA Dave Thomas (right) tell the official story of Columbine at a press conference.

Several former and current county officials have disputed the grand jury report, including District Attorney Dave Thomas, who attended the private meeting but has disavowed any role in the subsequent cover-up. (Thomas is now running for Congress, and the Colorado Democratic Party has bemoaned the fact that he's the target of a smear campaign by unholy, unnamed forces.) Yet the trail of duplicity surrounding the Columbine files is far more extensive, and disturbing, than the report indicates. In their quest to protect their own hides and careers, a pack of Jeffco bureaucrats misled victims’ families and the public, trashed the state’s public-records law, and thumbed their noses at civil subpoenas and court orders. The conspiracy of silence held fast for 64 months, until the threat of criminal prosecution finally cracked it.

Why would so-called public servants do such a thing? The delicately worded grand jury report doesn't delve into such matters, but it's clear that the county had a major public-relations and legal nightmare on its hands on April 20, 1999, and that some officials were grappling with it even before the smoke and screams had dissipated at Columbine. Thirteen people were dead, another two dozen wounded, all at the hands of Klebold and Harris -- who'd been the subject of several complaints to local police over the past two years.

Some aspects of the pair's contacts with law enforcement, such as their 1998 arrest for burglary and participation in a juvenile diversion program run by the district attorney, were bound to come out soon. But the most embarrassing case was one that never led to a prosecution: The reports filed by Randy and Judy Brown against Harris, who'd boasted on his website about blowing up pipe bombs and had threatened to kill the Browns' oldest son, Brooks. Almost a year before the shootings, JCSO bomb investigator Mike Guerra looked into the matter, even drafting an affidavit for a warrant to search Harris's home. But the warrant was never submitted to a judge, and the investigation was abandoned after Guerra was reportedly told by a supervisor, Lieutenant John Kiekbusch, that he didn't have enough evidence to proceed.

Given the arsenal in his room, as well as writings dealing with the planned attack on Columbine that Harris was assembling a year before the shootings, it's possible that pursuing the search warrant could have averted the whole tragedy ("I'm Full of Hate and I Love It," December 6, 2001). Several JCSO officials were evidently briefed on Guerra's affidavit hours after the shootings.

Former undersheriff John Dunaway told Salazar's investigators that he discussed the affidavit with District Attorney Thomas as early as April 20. He thought he had “several discussions” with Thomas about the matter over the next few days, in which Thomas assured him that Guerra never had probable cause for a warrant. At the same time, investigator Kate Battan used material from Guerra's investigation to help prepare the search warrants that were served on the Harris and Klebold homes after the attack; sealed by court order, those warrants weren't made public for several more years.

A few days after the shootings, according to the grand jury report, the upper echelon of the sheriff's office -- including Sheriff John Stone, Dunaway, Kiekbusch, public information officer Steve Davis and the hapless Guerra -- met quietly with Thomas, Assistant DA Kathy Sasak, County Attorney Frank Hutfless and two of his assistants, William Tuthill and Lily Oeffler, and others. The meeting was held in an out-of-the-way Jefferson County Open Space office, and the principal item on the agenda was Guerra's affidavit. Reporters were already sniffing around the Brown complaint; the JCSO had first denied that any report was taken, then decided to release it, minus the subsequent investigative paperwork. By the end of the meeting, authorities had decided that they would not disclose the existence of the Guerra affidavit, either.

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