Jefferson County just doesn't get the message.
When confronted with bad news, Jeffco inevitably decides to kill the messenger rather than contemplate the message. Which, almost as inevitably, is this: Someone screwed up. Again.
The most recent screwup involves more leaked documents coming out of the Columbine investigation (the grand-champion screwup), including some grisly photographs of the crime scene. The mere thought that these photos somehow eluded Jeffco's crack security is enough to frighten families of the victims, who desperately hope that they won't log on to the Internet one day and find a photograph of their dead son or daughter. (The parents of Daniel Rohrbough didn't learn for certain that he'd been killed until they saw their boy, lying motionless on a sidewalk outside the school, in the April 21, 1999, Rocky Mountain News.) And the very mention that these photos now exist outside of the evidence room has been enough to panic Jeffco officials, who are desperately trying to track the leak to its source.
If they can charge that source and a few tributaries along the way with a crime, so much the better.
Since word of this latest leak seeped out earlier this month, the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department has been calling around town, trying to determine who has access to the photographs -- and how they got that access. Westword's turn came Monday, when Captain Dave Walcher -- Jeffco's incident commander at Columbine that bloody Tuesday three years ago and rarely heard in public since -- called a reporter and asked how he'd obtained certain documents, including two photographs published in our March 7 issue: one a photo of a timing device (carefully cropped), the other a Dylan Klebold-inscribed pipe bomb.
The real question, of course, is why these pictures are still deemed too sensitive to be released to the public; since Jeffco has officially closed its Columbine investigation, there's no reason not to release just about everything in the files -- except, perhaps, for medical records and the more graphic photos of bodies. (Those are making the rounds, too; I recently witnessed the casual exchange of a handful of photos showing Dylan Klebold dead in the library -- photos that have yet to surface anywhere in print.) And if Jeffco doesn't recognize that now's the time to come clean, then Attorney General Ken Salazar's new Columbine Open Records Task Force should do the job ("The Paper Chase," March 21).
But Walcher did not want to discuss the particulars of the Colorado Open Records Act. He wanted to know the source of the photos we'd published, whether we'd paid for the photos, whether we'd take money for the photos. And while we weren't about to give up our source -- not only are there journalistic principles involved, but hell, at this point, Jeffco is so full of leaks that the better query might be who isn't sneaking out public documents -- we made no secret of the fact that we would not be selling the photos. If, of course, we actually have any photos.
That doesn't mean that someone else won't sell them, though. The sheriff's department isn't the only group calling around. In recent weeks I've heard from family members, lawyers and private investigators, all trying to determine whether there are pictures for sale. The family members are asking because they don't want to see them in print; the lawyers and investigators, on the other hand, could well be looking to broker just such a deal. The National Enquirer has been sniffing around, and the calls are likely to become more insistent -- and the offers more lucrative -- as Columbine's third anniversary rapidly approaches.
And if, at some point, money does change hands, Jeffco stands ready to cuff them.
Not for the heinous crimes committed that day at Columbine. And not for the crimes of omission that the Jeffco sheriff's department may have committed in the year leading up to the shootings, when it failed to follow through on a search-warrant affidavit that could have led deputies to Eric Harris's diaries -- and details of deeds still months in the offing. (Rather than ask who leaked Harris's diary entries, which first appeared on Westword's Web site in early December, Jeffco authorities pointed a finger at the Harris family, which had little reason to release Eric's rantings.) Not for the apparent crimes of commission in the years after Columbine, either: when Sheriff John Stone refused to talk to parents at the same time he was showing Klebold and Harris's basement tapes to Time magazine; when the Littleton Fire Department (our butt-ball buddies) started showing a Columbine tape around the country; when Jeffco's official report displayed obvious mistakes.
No, the big crime would be the selling of information. And unlike the horrors of Columbine, that's a situation Jeffco's prepared to deal with.
It's done it before. Four months after Columbine, when the Jefferson County District Attorney's Office presumably had better things to do, a Jeffco grand jury indicted Craig Lewis, a reporter/editor for the tabloid Globe, and former attorney Tom Miller. Their alleged crime? Criminal bribery -- attempting to bribe an employee into breaking confidentiality with an employer. And that employer would be John and Patsy Ramsey, whose legal team had hired former Denver cop and handwriting expert Donald Vacca to examine the ransom note left on the back steps of the Ramsey home on December 26, 1996. Introduced toVacca by Miller, Lewis had offered $30,000 for a copy of the note in April 1997 -- at Vacca's home in Jeffco, conveniently enough.
Had Lewis only waited, he could have saved himself some dough -- and plenty of aggravation. Later that year, the note was leaked to Vanity Fair and Newsweek, and from there it went straight onto the Internet and out into the world. Instead, Lewis was dragged through Jeffco's legal system for almost two years before he took a deal: He'd admit to "ethical wrongdoing" and the Globe would donate $100,000 to the University of Colorado School of Journalism, which would use it to pay for an undergraduate ethics class. (The money would have been better spent cleaning up CU's own open-records problem, including a still-closed fifty-year-old file listing suspected communist sympathizers at the university.) Miller kept fighting -- and finally, in June 2001, a Jeffco jury took all of an hour to acquit him. (His lawyer was Gary Lozow, who's currently representing the Klebolds.)
Despite its loss in court, Jeffco's not about to let all that legal research go to waste. And should one of those pesky tabloids convince some employee -- of a copy shop, a photo lab, the sheriff's office -- to sell the very documents that are now leaking out of the county for free, Jeffco will be ready.
Even if it wasn't on April 20, 1999.
A public official wanting to inspect public documents? That's not natural!
Not according to Grand County District Judge Richard Doucette, anyway, who in December ruled that Denver's auditor, Don Mares, was not authorized to see certain records he'd requested from the Winter Park Recreation Association, the nonprofit that's run Winter Park for the City of Denver for 52 years, because the auditor didn't qualify as a "natural person" under the Colorado Open Records Act.
Not surprisingly, Mares begged to differ, and he asked the Colorado Supreme Court to overturn Doucette's decision; that appeal is in the works. In the meantime, Mares is trying to close the legal loophole that stymied his WPRA request; his office is supporting HB 1342, which would give public officials the same access to public records that private individuals supposedly enjoy -- not just in the case of Winter Park, but in many Colorado records requests (see Columbine, above).
The WPRA responded to that gambit by hiring a lobbyist to push an amendment that would require every public entity in the state to designate a single official as its CORA gatekeeper, who would weigh every public-records request made by any other employee of that entity. And rather than open up access to public records, the suggested amendment has the potential to slam the door shut.
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But that's not the intention, according to Joan Christensen, communications director for Winter Park. "The open-records law exists so that the public can keep track of what the government is doing -- not so the government can keep track of what it's doing," she says. "Don Mares asked for literally millions of pieces of paper. We can't have eighteen people doing that. As a practical consideration, there has to be one entity that has the ability to request information."
So far, though, state senator Joan Fitz- Gerald, who's sponsoring the bill in the Senate, has stood firm. And this is no time to give up ground, because as the city continues to negotiate the deal that will allow Intrawest, a Canadian corporation, to run Winter Park, the public has a stronger interest than ever in the proceedings -- and so should the taxpayers' independently elected watchdog, the auditor.
Mares himself testified before the House when it voted on the measure. "Living proof that he's a natural person," says the auditor's director of communications, Cher Roybal Haavind. "He just thinks a public official should be entitled to the same access as anyone on the street."