Anatomy of a Cover-up

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

The hide-and-seek game over Guerra's affidavit continued until the spring of 2001, when producers from 60 Minutes II, armed with concrete proof that the affidavit existed, went to court to demand its release. (Point of disclosure: I served as a paid consultant to CBS News on the project and was involved in that court battle.) The proof came, oddly enough, in a letter Dave Thomas had recently sent to the Browns; after taking a leisurely five months to respond to their demands for a grand jury probe of the missing files, Thomas spilled the beans by acknowledging that “a search warrant draft was started” by Guerra.

Braced by 60 Minutes II about the letter, a befuddled Thomas said he was under the impression that the Guerra affidavit was old news. To the chagrin of the county's attorneys, Judge Brooks Jackson ordered the document to be released. The JCSO tried to save face with an Orwellian press release that declared, “A few days after the Columbine shootings, the Sheriff's Office disclosed the existence of the so-called ‘secret’ search warrant affidavit” -- when, in fact, what had happened was a conspiracy not to disclose it ("Chronology of a Big Fat Lie," April 19, 2001).

But other documents remained hidden. It was part of a larger campaign of obfuscation and outright deceit that encompassed not only the prior investigation of Harris, but the police response to the attack; timelines were distorted or destroyed, dispatch logs and other vital evidence deep-sixed ("In Search of Lost Time," May 2, 2002). As long as the lawsuits against the county filed by victims' families were stopped dead in their tracks, what difference did it make how this was done?

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.

In an effort to dispel the suspicion that the county was, um, hiding something, two years ago Thomas and Salazar agreed to co-chair the Columbine Records Review Task Force, an effort to see what remaining confidential documents from the investigation might be released. Unfortunately, several members of the task force – notably, Thomas, Sasak, Oeffler and Battan -- were perceived as having a stake in not disclosing Columbine's remaining secrets. Oeffler and Battan soon resigned from the task force, while Thomas and Sasak soldiered on.

But it wasn't the task force that uncovered the secret meeting and the lies that followed. Last fall, a 1997 police report on Harris suddenly surfaced, prompting a mortified Sheriff Mink to ask Salazar to investigate. Over the course of two interviews, Guerra offered investigators somewhat contradictory accounts of what he'd done and who he'd shown his affidavit to. In a third interview, he finally acknowledged the Open Space meeting and its purpose. It was “kind of one of those cover-your-ass meetings, I guess,” he said.

Guerra said he was told not to discuss his affidavit with anyone outside the county attorney's office. His file disappeared from his desk for a few days, then reappeared. His affidavit was mysteriously deleted from his computer files, but he suspected that other people at the meeting kept their own copies.

Stone, Dunaway and Kiekbusch are no longer at the sheriff's office. All have emphatically denied any wrongdoing; contrary to the recollections of Guerra and another officer, Kiekbusch told investigators he never saw Guerra's affidavit until after the shootings. Thomas and Oeffler didn't respond to requests for comment.

The Browns say they're grateful that the grand jury released its report, but they're also frustrated with the narrow scope of the investigation. "It's unbelievable that you can have this much evidence of a cover-up and yet no criminal charges," says Randy Brown. "People who were in that meeting lied about my family and what they knew for five years.”

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