In Search of Lost Time

In the digital age, it's a simple matter for a police agency to record incoming calls for help. Every 911 call, from the most trivial to the most urgent -- say, a call from a frantic cafeteria worker at a local high school reporting gunfire and three victims down -- can be electronically stored, with the time and location instantly noted.

It's simple, too, for reporters, attorneys, victims' advocates and other interested parties to obtain the records of 911 calls. In many cases, all you have to do is ask.

Unless, of course, the police agency in question is the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office and the call has to do with the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School. Then it might take three years of heartbreak, lies, lawsuits, allegations and conspiracy theories -- culminating in attacks on a Denver police officer's reputation and a probe by outside investigators -- before the public learns exactly when a particular call was made.

The long-running battle over Columbine and its aftermath seems to have reached a turning point in recent weeks. Sheriff John P. Stone, the target of relentless criticism by Columbine families over police response to the massacre, has announced that he won't seek a second term in November. Under pressure from the families, the Columbine Records Review Task Force launched by Jeffco District Attorney Dave Thomas and Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar has added Randy Brown, a vocal critic of the sheriff's office, to the panel, which is charged with reviewing and releasing as much government information about the event as possible. Through lawsuits and the task force's efforts, thousands of pages of Columbine documents have been made public in the past month, with the promise of more to come.

The most dramatic development of all unfolded two weeks ago, when the El Paso County Sheriff's Office announced that its probe of the murder of Columbine student Daniel Rohrbough had cleared Denver police sergeant Dan O'Shea of any involvement in Rohrbough's death. O'Shea, a former SWAT officer who fired more rounds than any other responding cop at Columbine, had been accused of accidentally shooting the teenager in a lawsuit filed by Dan's parents, Brian Rohrbough and Sue Petrone; the accusation, first made public last December, prompted Jeffco to request El Paso County's "reinvestigation" of the death.

Rohrbough and Petrone had long challenged Jeffco's official finding that their son was shot at close range by gunman Dylan Klebold, insisting that the physical evidence didn't fit. By re-interviewing witnesses, studying trajectories and conducting ballistics tests on one recovered bullet, the El Paso investigators concluded that Rohrbough was shot three times at a distance by Klebold's accomplice, Eric Harris, in the early stages of the attack on the school.

Much of El Paso's work involved retracing Jeffco's steps and correcting mistakes the investigators had made in compiling the original report. One key element involved the timing of a 911 call that originated from the faculty lounge shortly after the shooting began outside on April 20, 1999. The four-minute call was made by school employee Karen Nielsen, starting at 11:25 a.m.

"So far, they're outside," Nielsen told the 911 operator. "We've got a student out here...we can get to him, but we're afraid to move him.... We've got another kid shot in the face; half his face is hanging off. We've got another one shot, and he's not breathing."

Nielsen was describing students Sean Graves (shot in the spine), Lance Kirklin (shot in the face) and Daniel Rohrbough (shot in the chest and killed), all of whom were struck by the gunmen's bullets outside the faculty lounge. Denver dispatch tapes indicate that O'Shea didn't arrive at the school until 25 to 30 minutes later.

"That call is a very critical piece of evidence," notes El Paso commander Joe Breister, who led the reinvestigation team. "It establishes that Daniel Rohrbough was already down long before O'Shea was on scene."

Brian Rohrbough, who has praised El Paso's investigation and offered a public apology to O'Shea, agrees that the 911 call is an important piece of the puzzle that Breister's team put together. But it's also been a source of considerable grief and frustration. Rohrbough and other litigants had been trying for two years to get the Jeffco sheriff's office to produce a log showing the times of 911 calls made that day. They were told the document they were seeking didn't exist -- and then Jeffco handed that very log over to the El Paso investigators.

"We tried and tried," Rohrbough says. "For whatever reason, they just covered it up."

In the spring of 2000, in response to an open-records lawsuit filed by Rohrbough and other victims' families, a district judge ordered the sheriff's office to release more than forty hours of dispatch and 911 tapes. But the tapes aren't time-stamped or arranged in any coherent sequence, making it impossible to establish when the Nielsen call (or any other particular call) was received. The timelines presented in Sheriff Stone's final report, some of which clashed with information on the tapes, failed to clarify the matter.

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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