Chronology of a Big Fat Lie

The last two weeks have not been the best of times for the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office. The agency has been in serious damage-control mode since the court-ordered release of hundreds of pages of police records that indicated the JCSO was telling something less than the whole truth about its investigation into the Columbine massacre.

The documents had been sought by CBS News for a one-hour documentary on Columbine that aired April 17 on 60 Minutes II ("Lights, Camera...No Comment," April 12). The most damning revelations to emerge from the paper chase were contained in a two-page draft of an affidavit for a search warrant for the house of Columbine gunman Eric Harris, prepared by JCSO investigator Mike Guerra almost a year before the shootings at the high school.

Although never submitted to a judge, Guerra's affidavit demonstrated that the police had more information about Harris and his bomb-making activities than they had previously admitted, yet had failed to pursue the investigation.

Stirred to action by the media furor over the affidavit, the sheriff's office actually issued a press release -- its first detailed comment on a Columbine-related matter since victims' families filed nine lawsuits against Sheriff John Stone a year ago. The release was a momentous event, not unlike a puff of smoke emerging from the Vatican to announce the selection of a new pope.

The press release itself quickly became a matter of controversy. It began by asserting that Judge Brooke Jackson, the judge overseeing the open-records litigation, "was provided access to all of our documentation relative to Columbine" (in court last month, Jackson announced that even he hadn't seen everything the sheriff's office had). It went on to explain that the JCSO had opposed the release of certain materials "to prevent further heartache for the victims' families" -- while neglecting to mention that the families were suing the JCSO for access to those materials.

But the statement that sent reporters scurrying to their clip files was the claim that the search-warrant affidavit was really old news. "A few days after the Columbine shootings, the Sheriff's Office disclosed the existence of the so-called 'secret' search warrant affidavit," the release claimed.

No reporter could find any mention of the affidavit in news coverage after the Columbine shootings. A Westword review of a videotape of the JCSO news conference on April 30, 1999, in which the affidavit was supposedly "disclosed," turned up something else entirely: a running stream of excuses, half-truths and outright lies about what the JCSO knew and did about Eric Harris before he and Dylan Klebold killed thirteen people.

Over the past two years, The House That Stone Walled had plenty of opportunities to tell the truth about its investigation of Harris, but it chose not to -- not until a judge made the JCSO produce the affidavit. For the record, here's what sheriff's department did:

January 30, 1998: Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold are arrested in Deer Creek Canyon for breaking into a van and stealing electrical equipment.

February 15, 1998: A resident of south Jeffco reports a pipe bomb found in a field a few blocks from Harris's house. The size and materials are similar to those of bombs Harris describes in writings posted on his America Online Web pages.

March 18, 1998: Randy Brown reports that Eric Harris is making death threats on his Web site -- including a specific threat against Randy's son, Brooks Brown -- and boasting that he is detonating pipe bombs and vandalizing neighbors' property. He provides a JCSO deputy with ten pages of Harris's writings, downloaded from the Web site. The complaint is written up as a "suspicious incident" rather than as a felony investigation, with Harris listed as a "subject" rather than as a suspect. The report is designated to be forwarded to Neil Gardner, the deputy assigned to work at Columbine High School. Gardner will later claim that he never saw the contents of the report.

March 25, 1998: Harris and Klebold are placed in a juvenile diversion program for the van break-in.

March 31, 1998: After persistent phone calls, Randy and Judy Brown finally obtain a meeting with sheriff's investigator John Hicks concerning Harris's threats. According to the Browns, Hicks is already aware of Harris's previous arrest and record.

April 2, 1998: A criminal background check by JCSO fails to turn up any information on Harris because of his juvenile status and the low-level nature of his felony arrest.

April 11, 1998: Judy Brown contacts the JCSO about an e-mail threat received on her son's computer but then accidentally deleted. A deputy takes the report by phone as a "suspicious incident" and indicates that it should be forwarded to Investigator Hicks.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast