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Dave's Dilemma

When a public official takes on duties that appear to be at cross purposes, it's said that the job requires him to wear "many hats." If that's the case, then Dave Thomas sports more headgear than a marching band.

As three-term district attorney of Jefferson County, Thomas is the lead prosecutor in the metro area's most populous county, the avenger of wrongs and seeker of justice, the voice of the victimized and the defenseless.

As the top law-enforcement official in the county, with nearly three decades of experience working with cops, Thomas is also the primary keeper of police secrets, privy to intimate details of criminal investigations -- the good, the bad and the boneheaded mistakes -- that will never be aired in a courtroom.

As chief instigator of the Columbine Records Review Task Force, Thomas has cast himself as a crusader for openness, vowing to fight for public release of confidential government documents pertaining to the murders at the high school on April 20, 1999, in an effort to resolve the long-running battle between victims' families and the hard-bunkered, auto-fabulating Jefferson County Sheriff's Office.

And as a declared candidate for Congress, Thomas is not a man seeking to stir up controversy or make fresh enemies. He is, rather, seeking to make nice and build a constituency for what many regard as a long-shot bid in the 7th Congressional District's Democratic primary against party heavyweights Mike Feeley and Bob Hagedorn.

Thomas's multiple missions are on a collision course this week as the third anniversary of the Columbine massacre approaches. With new information about the shootings on the verge of release and embarrassing details leaking out despite Thomas's efforts to control the flow, the DA is going to need his many hats just to ward off the storm of criticism that is raining down on him from disappointed Columbine families and their supporters.

"I think he realizes that, politically, he's in a bad place right now," says Brian Rohrbough, whose fifteen-year-old son Dan was killed outside of Columbine.

One conundrum facing Thomas is what to do with the 1,200-page report on the Rohrbough shooting prepared by the El Paso County Sheriff's Office. The Jeffco sheriff requested the independent inquiry after Brian Rohrbough went public with his claims that Dan had been shot by a Denver police officer and that Jeffco had lied to him about its investigation ("There Ought to Be a Law," March 7). Last week, Thomas declared that the massive report would take time to review and wouldn't be made public before the April 20 anniversary, out of respect for victims' families. But the Rohrbough family has pressed for its release, and as a result, a summary of the report is being released this week.

The El Paso report isn't expected to challenge Jeffco's official position, that Dan Rohrbough was killed by one or both of the teenage gunmen, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. But according to sources close to the investigation, El Paso's findings do contradict Jeffco's account on a key point: The Colorado Springs detectives are convinced that Klebold didn't walk down a set of stairs and shoot Rohrbough at close range, "killing him instantly," as the Jeffco sheriff's May 2000 report declares. (For close to two years, Brian Rohrbough has maintained that the physical evidence doesn't support Jeffco's version of the shooting.)

El Paso's team also reportedly took a close look at shots fired in and possibly out of a window in the faculty lounge, not far from where Rohrbough fell. The gunfire isn't mentioned in Jeffco's report; in fact, a police bullet found in the lounge doesn't even appear on Jeffco's evidence maps of the crime scene.

Thomas has declined to comment on the report until it is released. But its deviation from Jeffco's version could create headaches for months to come. If the largest criminal investigation in the state's history could so badly misstate basic facts about a victim's murder, what else did Jeffco get wrong? And what should Dave Thomas -- who was quick to clear police officers of any wrongdoing at Columbine, issuing letters of absolution even before ballistics results were available -- do about it?

As if the El Paso report wasn't enough of a problem, Thomas also has to endure the displeasure of Columbine families over his role in Columbine: Understanding Why, an hour-long "psychiatric autopsy" of Klebold and Harris that aired on the A&E cable network on April 15. The show had its genesis in Thomas's request that a group of mental-health experts, the Threat Assessment Group (TAG), study Klebold and Harris in order to develop recommendations to help prevent future school shootings. A&E agreed to fund the effort in exchange for rights to a documentary on the project.

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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