Scene of the crime: El Paso investigators retrace police actions at Columbine.
Scene of the crime: El Paso investigators retrace police actions at Columbine.

In Search of Lost Time

In the digital age, it's a simple matter for a police agency to record incoming calls for help. Every 911 call, from the most trivial to the most urgent -- say, a call from a frantic cafeteria worker at a local high school reporting gunfire and three victims down -- can be electronically stored, with the time and location instantly noted.

It's simple, too, for reporters, attorneys, victims' advocates and other interested parties to obtain the records of 911 calls. In many cases, all you have to do is ask.

Unless, of course, the police agency in question is the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office and the call has to do with the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School. Then it might take three years of heartbreak, lies, lawsuits, allegations and conspiracy theories -- culminating in attacks on a Denver police officer's reputation and a probe by outside investigators -- before the public learns exactly when a particular call was made.

The long-running battle over Columbine and its aftermath seems to have reached a turning point in recent weeks. Sheriff John P. Stone, the target of relentless criticism by Columbine families over police response to the massacre, has announced that he won't seek a second term in November. Under pressure from the families, the Columbine Records Review Task Force launched by Jeffco District Attorney Dave Thomas and Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar has added Randy Brown, a vocal critic of the sheriff's office, to the panel, which is charged with reviewing and releasing as much government information about the event as possible. Through lawsuits and the task force's efforts, thousands of pages of Columbine documents have been made public in the past month, with the promise of more to come.

The most dramatic development of all unfolded two weeks ago, when the El Paso County Sheriff's Office announced that its probe of the murder of Columbine student Daniel Rohrbough had cleared Denver police sergeant Dan O'Shea of any involvement in Rohrbough's death. O'Shea, a former SWAT officer who fired more rounds than any other responding cop at Columbine, had been accused of accidentally shooting the teenager in a lawsuit filed by Dan's parents, Brian Rohrbough and Sue Petrone; the accusation, first made public last December, prompted Jeffco to request El Paso County's "reinvestigation" of the death.

Rohrbough and Petrone had long challenged Jeffco's official finding that their son was shot at close range by gunman Dylan Klebold, insisting that the physical evidence didn't fit. By re-interviewing witnesses, studying trajectories and conducting ballistics tests on one recovered bullet, the El Paso investigators concluded that Rohrbough was shot three times at a distance by Klebold's accomplice, Eric Harris, in the early stages of the attack on the school.

Much of El Paso's work involved retracing Jeffco's steps and correcting mistakes the investigators had made in compiling the original report. One key element involved the timing of a 911 call that originated from the faculty lounge shortly after the shooting began outside on April 20, 1999. The four-minute call was made by school employee Karen Nielsen, starting at 11:25 a.m.

"So far, they're outside," Nielsen told the 911 operator. "We've got a student out here...we can get to him, but we're afraid to move him.... We've got another kid shot in the face; half his face is hanging off. We've got another one shot, and he's not breathing."

Nielsen was describing students Sean Graves (shot in the spine), Lance Kirklin (shot in the face) and Daniel Rohrbough (shot in the chest and killed), all of whom were struck by the gunmen's bullets outside the faculty lounge. Denver dispatch tapes indicate that O'Shea didn't arrive at the school until 25 to 30 minutes later.

"That call is a very critical piece of evidence," notes El Paso commander Joe Breister, who led the reinvestigation team. "It establishes that Daniel Rohrbough was already down long before O'Shea was on scene."

Brian Rohrbough, who has praised El Paso's investigation and offered a public apology to O'Shea, agrees that the 911 call is an important piece of the puzzle that Breister's team put together. But it's also been a source of considerable grief and frustration. Rohrbough and other litigants had been trying for two years to get the Jeffco sheriff's office to produce a log showing the times of 911 calls made that day. They were told the document they were seeking didn't exist -- and then Jeffco handed that very log over to the El Paso investigators.

"We tried and tried," Rohrbough says. "For whatever reason, they just covered it up."

In the spring of 2000, in response to an open-records lawsuit filed by Rohrbough and other victims' families, a district judge ordered the sheriff's office to release more than forty hours of dispatch and 911 tapes. But the tapes aren't time-stamped or arranged in any coherent sequence, making it impossible to establish when the Nielsen call (or any other particular call) was received. The timelines presented in Sheriff Stone's final report, some of which clashed with information on the tapes, failed to clarify the matter.

Repeated requests for an index or time-coded key to the tapes produced no result. In early 2001, CBS News, which was producing an hour-long documentary on Columbine for Sixty Minutes II, joined the open-records litigation, seeking to obtain documents that were clearly missing from the publicly released files. On several occasions, CBS attorneys asked the county attorney's office to comply with the judge's orders by releasing, among other items, any and all "911 and dispatch transcripts, logs, indexes and time-stamping data." The county insisted that any such materials had already been produced.

"All this information was placed on the final draft of the time line" and published in the sheriff's report, county attorney William Tuthill wrote to a CBS attorney on February 20, 2001. [Editor's note: Alan Prendergast served as a paid consultant to CBS on the project.]

In May 2001, Westword asked the county attorney's office to review its position on the matter, "since the claim that no time-stamping log or key exists for the 911 calls is at variance with the evidence found in the sheriff's report and other information." The written request was simply ignored.

The 38-page log of 911 calls, listing each by time and event, wasn't made public until El Paso released it as part of the supplemental materials to its report two weeks ago -- almost exactly two years after Rohrbough first announced his suspicions that a police officer may have been involved in the death of his son. The log contains handwritten notations by investigators that indicate the document was studied carefully during the preparation of Jefferson County's report, which was released in May 2000.

Jeffco's reluctance to produce the call log, even to put to rest an allegation of a police-involved shooting, incenses Rohrbough's attorney, Barry Arrington. "If Jefferson County had released this two years ago when we asked for it, we could have saved untold amounts of anguish and sorrow," he says. "Their actions have been utterly baffling to me. I don't know why there was this circle-the-wagons mentality from the very beginning.

"When Brian started raising questions about their report, their response wasn't, 'Let's talk about this and see if we can resolve it.' Their response was, 'We're right, you're wrong. We're not going to talk to you.'"

Asked to explain her office's failure to produce the document over the past two years, Assistant County Attorney Lily Oeffler offered a brief response, relayed through another office employee. Oeffler described the 911 log as a "draft" rather than a final product and said the county had focused on requests for time-stamping of the tapes, which it was unable to provide because the communications equipment in the sheriff's office had changed. But the open-records requests specifically sought logs as well as time-stamping, and the judge's orders required the release of "backup materials" used to prepare the sheriff's report as well as final documents.

The times listed for the 911 calls include more than a few significant deviations from the official attack timeline Jefferson County issued two years ago. Even when adjusted by nearly three minutes in order to be "synchronized" with the sheriff's office dispatch time, the log paints a very different picture of the police response to the shootings than has been previously reported.

According to the official report, Jeffco deputy Neil Gardner, the school resource officer and the first cop on scene, pulled into the Columbine parking lot at 11:24 a.m. Supposedly his arrival "distracted" Eric Harris, who at that moment was outside the west doors, firing at teacher Patty Nielson. Harris turned and fired at Gardner. Gardner fired back; Harris retreated into the building, only to re-emerge two minutes later and fire again on Gardner and arriving deputy Paul Smoker. In other words, the first officers on the scene engaged one of the gunmen in two firefights before the killings in the library began. It's a scenario Jeffco has clung to stubbornly, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, including key details in its own officers' interviews and dispatch calls ("More Whoppers From Jeffco," October 25, 2001).

The 911 log refutes this fable decisively. The first call about shots fired at Columbine, a call from student Lindsie Macy made from a pay phone outside the school, begins at 11:24 a.m. "Someone's shooting a gun out here," Macy told the operator. "Some girl over there, I think she's paralyzed."

At 11:25, while Macy is still on the phone, the dispatcher notifies Gardner about a "girl down" in the parking lot. Already tipped to the shooting on a school radio, Gardner received the call while en route to the school, so he couldn't have been in a gunfight with Harris at that point. In fact, Macy noted Gardner's arrival during her call: "A cop just pulled up."

Other evidence indicates that Gardner's encounter with Harris took place as much as five minutes later than the official report indicates. Smoker's radio transmissions indicate that he didn't arrive outside the west doors until around 11:30 -- just in time to hear the shooting starting in the library. His gun battle with Harris appears to have occurred after the massacre was over, more than ten minutes later than Jeffco claims it did.

Long before anyone made any accusations about a coverup at Columbine, Brian Rohrbough says, the sheriff's investigators were already on the defensive. "During their one meeting with us, they agreed to have additional meetings," he recalls. "They said they knew we were going to have questions. Then, right after that, they stopped talking to us. Nothing had changed from our end. We didn't know anything yet. But if you have nothing to hide, why would you be afraid to answer questions?"

Three years later, the mystery over who killed Daniel Rohrbough may at last be over. But the greater mystery of why the sheriff's office continues to misstate the facts about Columbine continues.

To read earlier coverage, go to the Columbine Reader.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >