Anatomy of a Cover-up

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

Thomas maintains that he was at the meeting simply to render an opinion on the probable-cause issue; he insists he didn't know of the decision to suppress the document. But in the days that followed, the sheriff's office didn't just omit mention of the affidavit. Their people lied about what the Browns told them and the extent of their investigation of Harris, misleading the world press about it all. And Dave Thomas went along for the ride.

At a press conference on April 30, Steve Davis read a press release that purported to explain what deputies did in response to the Browns’ complaints about Harris. The statement, drafted by Lieutenant Jeff Shrader, was the start of a long-running disinformation campaign targeting the Browns. It contained several statements that simply weren't true, some of them flatly contradicted by the information in Guerra's affidavit. But then, nobody was going to mention that damning piece of paper. (Stung by the grand jury's criticism of his role, Shrader issued a response of the I-was-only-following-orders variety: Since County Attorney Hutfless and Thomas both thought Guerra's affidavit wouldn't stand up in court, "Mr. Shrader gave due deference to the conclusions of these officials.")

Fielding questions from reporters, Kiekbusch reiterated some of the same falsehoods. No, the investigator hadn't been able to find any pipe bombs in the county that matched Harris's description of the ones he was building. (Guerra had found one.) No, there was no record that the Browns had met with investigator John Hicks. (The affidavit noted the meeting.) No, the investigators hadn't been able to locate information about Harris on the Internet. (Guerra would later tell Salazar's people that a JCSO computer expert had been unable to access the website but did find Harris’s AOL profile.) The man who by some accounts had pulled the plug on Guerra's investigation was now assuring everyone there was no investigation worth mentioning.

District Attorney Thomas stood at the podium with Kiekbusch and Davis and took it all in, then answered some questions himself. At no point did he contradict the torrent of mendacity flowing from the sheriff's office -- which he knew to be mendacity, evidently, having been consulted on the Guerra affidavit extensively at this point.

Instead, Thomas added to the misinformation, stating that prior to the shootings, no one had connected the pipe-bomb case to the two youths who were in his diversion program. This is one of the biggest remaining myths about Columbine. Actually, Hicks had mentioned the prior burglary case to the Browns; Guerra recalls finding the case in his own check of Harris’s record (despite the JCSO claim that Harris cleared the computer check); and an investigator from Thomas’s own office had found the burglary case in 1998 after being contacted by Judy Brown about the pipe bombs. Yet even though the kid making bombs and death threats was already on probation, nobody did anything about it.

"I think it's very difficult and painful to look back and ask a lot of questions about what could have prevented this," Thomas told the assembled press.

But Thomas was hardly alone in his complicity. Over the next two years, the Browns and news organizations filed numerous open-records requests with the county attorney, trying to track down the missing pieces of the reports generated by the Browns’ complaints about Harris. Tuthill and Oeffler invariably responded that the documents did not exist, that everything connected with the Browns’ complaints had already been released. Lawyers preparing civil suits on behalf of victims’ families got the same response. Actually, copies of many of the records in question had been provided to the county attorney shortly after the shootings, in anticipation of future litigation -- and then locked away. County Attorney Tuthill, who replaced Hutfless in 2001, had no trouble locating his office's copies of the “missing” records when the attorney general's investigators came calling a few months ago.

The Browns also requested an internal investigation from the sheriff's office, in an effort to clear up discrepancies in their record hunt and the rumors they were hearing of a botched search warrant. As the Browns recall it, the officer handling the probe seemed more interested in pumping them to find out where they'd heard that such a document existed. In a letter dated August 14, 2000, Undersheriff Dunaway airily dismissed their complaint: "There is no indication that anyone tampered with or withheld entry of information related to Eric Harris."

Months earlier, Kiekbusch told Westword that the records the Browns were after had either been routinely purged from the system or had never existed. But that was long before the files would have been purged, under the JCSO's record-retention policy, and no one has ever been able to explain why the department would purge records that had some bearing on the largest criminal investigation in Colorado history. In any case, the "purged files" explanation was just another piece of misdirection; the grand jury learned that the sheriff's office had kept copies of the documents, too, and had withheld them -- even, apparently, from Stone's successors as sheriff, Russ Cook and Ted Mink -- until Salazar's men examined them last January.

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