Going Ballistic

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold weren't the only ones engaged in a shooting spree at Columbine on April 20, 1999. Denver police officers were generous with their own ammunition that day, firing at phantoms and pumping rounds into a school full of trapped students long after the killers were dead.

The official story of police actions at Columbine, as set forth in officers' statements and investigative reports, gives the impression that most of the police shooting occurred during exchanges of gunfire with the killers. Harris fired on the first responding officers from the west doors of the school, and both he and Klebold opened fire from the library at least twice over the next forty minutes. Jefferson County's official report states that the "majority" of the shots fired by police were directed at the west entrance and the library windows: "This was done when shots were exchanged with the gunmen, and when law enforcement and medical personnel were evacuating students."

But ballistics records, including documents released by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation more than three years after the shootings, tell a different story. Most of the police rounds recovered at Columbine were found well inside the school, along a major east-west hallway and around the library. The vast majority of these bullets were fired by Denver police officers as cover fire to protect their own, even though there was no gunfire coming from the building at that point, because Klebold and Harris had committed suicide almost an hour earlier.

Officially, the police fired a total of 141 shots at Columbine. But that figure is a rough estimate at best; statements by individual officers indicate they could have fired as many as 162 rounds. Fewer than a hundred fired bullets and fragments recovered from the school were identified as "consistent" with police weapons, and only a handful of those bullets were ever positively linked to individual officers' guns. Many of the police rounds don't appear on evidence maps that have been released by Jefferson County and may never have been properly accounted for.

None of the police bullets hit Harris or Klebold, and none of the 188 shots fired by the gunmen wounded any police officer. But the actual exchange of gunfire between cops and killers accounts for a small percentage of the total. Of the five dozen police bullets and fragments that can be accurately mapped, more than 80 percent turn up in places that suggest they weren't part of any gunfight at all. They were sprayed down hallways and into classrooms after Harris and Klebold were already dead, whizzing near wounded victims in the library and posing a potential risk to dozens of students and teachers trapped elsewhere on the west side of the school.

There is no evidence to suggest that anyone was actually injured by police fire. But the ballistics evidence is sharply at odds with early media reports concerning police actions at Columbine, as well as with the official sheriff's report, released a year after the shootings. Among the most disturbing details:

• A rescue squad made up primarily of Denver SWAT members fired repeatedly into the west doors and the library around 12:45 p.m. The shooting was supposed to cover officers as they checked on one wounded and one dead student outside of the school. Denver Sergeant Dan O'Shea reported seeing a suspect hurl an explosive during the rescue operation, followed by a "muzzle flash" as the suspect fired on police; Vince DiManna, the Denver SWAT captain, reported that he "felt a concussion/heat on my right side." Actually, Harris and Klebold had killed themselves shortly after noon, and the hostile "fire" reported by the officers may have been ricochets from their own guns. Two of O'Shea's bullets traveled the length of the hallway to the east side of the building, not far from where another SWAT team had begun a room-to-room search of the school.

• At least one Denver police bullet took an unusual right turn and ended up in the hallway outside the library (A on the accompanying map). Was it a bizarre bank shot -- or, contrary to their reports, were officers firing down the north-south corridor as well?

• Other police bullets ripped through rooms north of the library and into the library itself, where at least two survivors of the massacre, Patrick Ireland and Lisa Kreutz, lay wounded. One police bullet was found buried in a counter near slain student Kyle Velasquez (B).

• Another bullet fragment was found lying on top of the bloody shirt of library victim Steven Curnow (C). There is no indication that the bullet was responsible for any wounds to Curnow, who was killed by a shotgun slug fired by Harris. But the fragment doesn't match the killers' ammo; it's similar in size to the base of a .223 bullet, and the only people firing .223 rounds that day were four police officers.

• After the shooting began, most of the students in the cafeteria fled in a panic. A few, however, remained huddled under tables and can still be seen on the surveillance videotape when Harris and Klebold enter the cafeteria and set it on fire at 11:45 a.m.; others were hiding in nearby kitchen storage areas for most of the afternoon. Curiously, one of the police bullets recovered from the cafeteria appears to be from the gun of Neil Gardner (D), the school resource officer and the first Jeffco deputy to arrive on the scene. (Because of the deformed nature of the .45 slug, the match is not exact, but the rifling characteristics eliminate every other weapon fired that day except Gardner's.) Several of Gardner's bullets were also found in the library. Gardner's report makes no mention of firing into either of those places. The sheriff's report, issued a year later, notes that Gardner fired on the suspects in the library but offers no explanation for the bullet in the cafeteria.

Other areas yielded no bullets where one would expect to find some; for example, several officers recalled firing into the teacher's lounge, but no police bullets were found there.

Despite the questions raised by so many mystery bullets, officials were quick to absolve responding officers of any possible recklessness that day. In the summer of 1999, long before ballistics testing was completed, Jefferson County District Attorney Dave Thomas commended the Denver police for "their swift and decisive action" at Columbine and concluded that all of their gunfire was "utilized as a precautionary measure for entry and security purposes."

The Denver Police Department's own Firearms Discharge Review Board agreed. Without interviewing all of the officers involved or inspecting any documents beyond the officers' own reports, the board concluded that all seven Denver officers had fired their weapons "within the policy and procedure" of the department.

And what is that policy? Asked by a Lakewood investigator if the "suppression fire" sprayed into the high school that day reflected "normal training," Denver police officer George Gray replied that such fire was called for anytime officers felt there was a possible threat from unseen shooters, a scenario SWAT teams have trained for since the "VanderJagt episode" -- a reference to the Denver officer who was ambushed and killed by a skinhead in 1997. "That's what we felt was necessary to do to safely pull the victims out of there," explained Gray, who fired 29 rounds at Columbine.

The scenario disturbs Columbine parent Randy Brown, who's spent countless hours studying the ballistics trail left behind by the killers and the police that day. "This is one of the horrible secrets of Columbine," Brown says. "Denver SWAT policy allows SWAT members to fire into a school, a business, a house or a condo to protect themselves, even if they're not being fired upon. Their safety comes before yours. It makes you rethink the idea of calling 911 in an emergency."

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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