News

Hiding in Plain Sight

Page 4 of 5

Wayne and Kathy Harris have never given a formal interview to the police. Their chief contact with Columbine investigators occurred the day of the shootings, when officers arrived to search the house, and particularly Eric's room, despite Kathy's protesting, "I don't want you going down there." But the parents' attorneys have had extensive communication with the county attorney's office since that day, and they've joined forces with the county on numerous occasions to battle release of the steno book and other materials seized from the home. It's a cozy alliance that has troubled Brian Rohrbough, whose son Danny was murdered at Columbine and who has ended up opposing the team in court.

"Jefferson County has used taxpayer money to represent the Klebolds' and Harrises' demand that these items never be released," Rohrbough wrote in his own letter to Mink, urging him to release the materials sought by the Post. "It is long past time for you to serve the public's interest in protecting children above the private interest of two families who raised cold-blooded murderers."

Nothing akin to the green steno book was found at the Klebold home. Tom and Susan Klebold did talk to investigators; five years later, they even gave one media interview, to David Brooks of the New York Times. "They say they had no intimations of Dylan's mental state," Brooks wrote. That assertion is spectacularly at odds with accounts from school employees -- about chronic disciplinary problems, perceived "anger issues" Dylan might have had with his father, and, most of all, a class essay Dylan wrote about a trenchcoated avenger who slaughters a group of "preps," a scene so vicious that his teacher felt compelled to discuss it with his parents -- but Brooks didn't press the issue.

Written only weeks before the massacre, the essay wasn't Klebold's first foray into violent revenge fantasies. He wrote about killing sprees in his own journal, as well as thoughts of suicide, depression and his dream of ascending to a higher state of existence. The sheriff's report provides only brief references to this material, which has been more tightly guarded than the Book of God.

When the sheriff's office finally got around to releasing thousands of pages of Columbine material, a cover sheet for one section was titled "Klebold Writings." But the writings weren't released.

The High Priests

One proposed solution to the question of the killers' tapes and writings, advanced by Ken Salazar before he left the post of Colorado attorney general for the U.S. Senate, was to turn over the materials to a "qualified professional," who would author a study about the causes of Columbine while keeping the primary materials in strict confidence. The proposal soon fell apart, though, after the killers' parents refused to cooperate with Salazar's anointed expert, Del Elliott, director of the University of Colorado's Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence.

It's just as well. The notion that only the high priests of social science are qualified to handle the gunmen's toxic waste, that only the academic elite have the training, the lengthy resumés, the godlike self-awareness to process this information without becoming hopelessly contaminated, is absurdly creepy. It's Kleboldish.

Besides, there's no data to suggest that qualified researchers are any better at keeping a secret than the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office. Lack of access to the basement tapes, the Harris and Klebold journals and the green steno book hasn't discouraged amateurs and experts alike from producing "psychological autopsies" of the killers, but there are two researchers who've had unique access to all those items. The only catch is that they can't talk about it.

In the course of defending one of the Columbine lawsuits, Solvay Pharmaceuticals -- the manufacturer of an anti-depressant prescribed for Harris -- retained the services of two expert witnesses, Park Dietz and John March, who were allowed to examine confidential discovery materials, including the tapes and writings seized from the killers' homes. Dietz and March were subject to the same suffocating non-disclosure agreements imposed on parties to the lawsuits against the Klebolds and Harrises. But after the Solvay case was settled, the pair sought permission to publish their findings in a peer-reviewed journal.

Lewis Babcock, chief judge of Denver's federal district court, denied their request. In a scathing order, he pointed out that March and Dietz had made conflicting arguments about why they should be allowed to go public. On the one hand, much of the material had already leaked out; on the other, the pair claimed to have "important scientific evidence of the motives and reasons" for the massacre that had not yet come to light. If the first assertion were true, Babcock reasoned, then the experts' report would be "of no interest to the public" -- but if it contained new information, it could endanger "potential victims of those who might take encouragement" from what it revealed.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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