Quagmire Without End, Amen
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.
"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 ("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.
Mike Guerra, a bomb-squad member who drafted a search warrant for Harris's house in 1998 that was never executed, says the web pages he received from another investigator were "sterilized," with no header information on them; he couldn't even be sure they were ever posted on the Internet. He says he left his investigative file on Eric Harris in his desk when he moved to another post in July 1999 -- three months after Columbine -- and doesn't know what happened to the file.
John Healy, an investigator who worked with Guerra trying to build a case against Harris in 1998, also prepared the case filing for another incident earlier that year, when Harris and Klebold were arrested for breaking into a van and placed on probation. But Healy apparently never made any connection between the two cases.
John Hicks, the investigator to whom Burgess forwarded the 1997 report, may have simply stuck it into a file as an "intel" item. He doesn't recall the report and never made the connection when he met with the Browns a few months later in response to another complaint about Harris's website. He says he turned over the case to Guerra, even though Randy and Judy Brown say they were under the impression that Hicks was handling the matter.
Mark Miller, a deputy who took a report from the Browns about death threats Harris had made against their son in the spring of 1998, was also involved in investigating the van break-in. But he never dealt directly with Harris and never realized he was the same individual the Browns had been talking about.
In the spring of 1997, Deputy Tim Walsh had several contacts by phone or in person with Randy Brown and Eric's father, Wayne Harris, as a result of Eric's suspected vandalism. But Walsh doesn't recall anything about the case, and thus didn't connect to it to the youths he arrested several months later for the van break-in.
Hicks, who left the department four years ago and has never spoken publicly about Columbine, says that Guerra told him "someone" removed his Harris file from his desk after the massacre and then returned it. Guerra doesn't recall the incident.
Contrary to what Westword reported a few months ago, the state investigators concluded that the 1997 file wasn't commingled with later Brown complaints. It sat in Hicks's "intel" file and was turned over to Healy when Hicks left the squad. But Healy didn't discover it until three years later.
And so it goes. All of these sheriff's deputies shuffling paperwork on Harris but failing to connect the dots -- maybe they should have formed their own Scrabble tournament. (How many points for NOT MY JOB?)
In the interviews conducted by Salazar's team, most of the finger-pointing is directed at Lieutenant John Kiekbusch, who is no longer with the sheriff's office. Another bomb technician who met with the Browns told the investigators that he was present when Kiekbusch nixed Guerra's search-warrant request, saying he needed more evidence. Guerra doesn't recall the conversation.
Hicks says that after the shootings, he "became concerned" that the information Kiekbusch was peddling to reporters about the prior Harris complaints was way off base. Although Undersheriff John Dunaway told him to "talk to the press," he says, he "knew he would not be allowed to tell the truth, so he refused."
Kiekbusch was the man in charge of the Columbine investigation at the outset, the fellow who stood up before the cameras ten days after the massacre to pooh-pooh the Browns' claims that they'd tried repeatedly to get the cops interested in Eric Harris before the tragedy ("Chronology of a Big Fat Lie," April 19, 2001).
Kiekbusch told the national media that day that his officers had minimal contact with the Browns. He said that Harris's web rants about building pipe bombs didn't match up with any actual pipe bombs found in the county. None of that was true, according to Guerra's draft affidavit -- but then, the search warrant didn't surface until two years later, after CBS News was able to establish that it existed and a judge ordered the sheriff's office to release it.
But Kiekbusch works in private security back East now, and his interview with Salazar's people -- conducted only days before the report was released -- hasn't been made available yet. Salazar, in any case, wasn't offering scapegoats, not even for the inexcusable whoppers the sheriff's office was telling the parents of dead children for months and years after the shootings. No amount of demonstrable lies would induce him to label the actions of the sheriff's office as a cover-up.
"I don't know that today," he said. Instead, he spoke quietly about how there would be supplemental reports and additional inquiries, then took no further questions.
Salazar stated his hope that opening more files would produce "lessons learned" that "can be valuable to parents, teachers, administrators, law enforcement, government and the public at large." But some of the most explosive information concerning what school officials and cops knew about the killers, before and after the massacre, is still being kept under wraps by judges and others, who aren't terribly keen on the public knowing what they know.
One of the items sealed from view at the Thursday exhibition was a green steno book -- the journal kept by Harris's parents concerning Eric's troubling behavior and noting various contacts with school and police about him. Salazar's team was able to consult the notebook to confirm at least one visit to the Harris house by Deputy Walsh in 1997 -- an event the sheriff's office has always denied knowing anything about. (Walsh didn't mention the visit when he was interviewed by Columbine investigators in 1999.)
Presumably, the journal could add a great deal to public understanding of Harris and his relationships with cops, the school and his own parents. But the notebook is under seal by court order, as are the depositions of Wayne and Kathy Harris taken in a lawsuit last summer. The case, brought by some of the victims' families, was settled shortly afterward, and a court battle has since emerged over a magistrate's order to destroy those depositions.
Other secrets are being guarded by the school district. School officials are now taking heat over the "Hitmen" video; the piece is hardly a blueprint for a massacre, but what is Columbine's policy about filming simulated violence, bringing fake weapons on school property and getting school credit for shouting obscene threats at the camera? Yet that bit of auteur cinema seems pallid in comparison to the video the lads shot, using school equipment, of their target practice with sawed-off shotguns a few weeks before the attack.
As reported in Westword two years ago, the latter video was edited in the school video lab. Other materials released since that time indicate that the video was seen not simply by other students, but by a teacher, who contacted Harris's parents about the noisy display of illegal weaponry. Wayne Harris, who'd previously detonated a pipe bomb found in his son's room but left Eric's bomb-making equipment intact, apparently did nothing about the report. Neither did the school.
Now that same weaponry is headed back to the evidence vault, following its short run at the fairgrounds.
But of all that is sad and absurd about Columbine, the ongoing dance of officials trying to "move on" without acknowledging their own breaches of public trust may be the greatest travesty. To this day, no one at the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office has ever apologized to the Browns for vilifying them and branding them as liars.
No one has explained to the families of dead children why it was necessary to lie to them about how their kids died, or what officials knew about Columbine's most troubled students before they turned deadly.
No one in power has acknowledged that Dave Sanders, Kelly Fleming, Rachel Scott, Corey DePooter, Daniel Rohrbough, Isaiah Shoels, Matt Kechter, Steven Curnow, Lauren Townsend, Cassie Bernall, Kyle Velasquez, John Tomlin, Daniel Mauser and all of their injured classmates deserve better than that.
"The only way to honor these children is to get the truth out," Randy Brown told the reporters at the fairgrounds, "so this doesn't ever happen again."
"What these guys need to do is make a formal apology to the families," says Brian Rohrbough, Daniel's father. "The stories they told us have caused us immeasurable pain."
And the pain remains. It always will, as long as the truth is locked away.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Westword's biggest stories.