For the past eighteen months, ever since Columbine families filed nine lawsuits against him and his agency, Jefferson County Sheriff John Stone has refused to talk to reporters about the school massacre. When other county officials deign to comment on the police response to the attack, they invariably parrot the account presented in the sheriff's official Columbine report that was released in May 2000 -- an account riddled with glaring omissions and factual errors.
Last spring, Westword requested a meeting with Sheriff Stone in an effort to clear up several troubling contradictions between the report and evidence contained in police investigative files. The response was cordial; citing pending litigation, Stone declined to be interviewed, but he agreed to respond to written questions concerning the official timeline of events on the day of the attack.
"I would be happy to clarify any point you feel is unclear or confusing to you," Stone wrote. "Any questions you have on the timeline can be answered in full detail."
Read related stories in "The Columbine Reader"
Ten questions were submitted to Stone in June. Four months and several phone calls later, a four-page reply arrived -- not from Stone, but from Jeffco Assistant County Attorney Lily Oeffler, whose office is defending Stone in the litigation. The letter upholds the official timeline to the last tittle, insisting that contradictory data found in police-dispatch tapes, witness interviews and statements by Stone's own deputies aren't contradictions at all. In short, evidence to the contrary be damned: There are no problems here.
But there are significant problems with the official Columbine timeline, and they're important for several reasons. A correct timeline is crucial in order to determine when the attack starts, when police arrive, and what they do after they get there. Particularly in the early stages of the attack, when every moment counts, it's not simply minutes, but lives that are at issue.
Take, for instance, the report's account of the actions of two Jeffco deputies, Neil Gardner and Paul Smoker, before the library rampage begins. According to the official timeline, Gardner pulls into the Columbine parking lot at 11:24 a.m. His arrival distracts Eric Harris, who at that moment is outside the west doors, firing at teacher Patty Nielson. Harris turns and opens fire on Gardner.
Gardner fires back. Harris retreats into the building. Two minutes later, he reappears at the west doors. This time Gardner and Smoker, who've taken a position near the west entrance, both return fire. Harris retreats again. The library killings begin three minutes later, with the handful of deputies outside pinned down by gunfire from the library windows.
That's the official story. And it's emphatically and provably wrong.
Here's what the evidence shows: Both Gardner and Andy Marton, a school employee who was riding with him, reported that there was already shooting inside the building when they arrived. The library windows were broken, and they heard explosions inside. Both say Harris came out of the west doors to engage them, rather than being "distracted" in the middle of the outside shooting spree. And Gardner's first on-scene call to the dispatcher, at 11:26, was about shots in the building, not about being un-der fire or even seeing a shooter. He didn't report "getting a couple of shots off at the shooter" until 11:29, seconds before the library massacre began.
As for Smoker, the report has him on the west side of the school, firing at Harris, at 11:26. But his statement indicates he was still in Clement Park, north of the school, when he heard Gardner's 11:26 call for assistance. He didn't fire on Harris until after "a whole slew of kids" ran out of the building, including several who had gunshot wounds and were "bleeding all over the place."
Although Smoker said the kids came out of the cafeteria, which is directly below the library, the only wounded students to emerge from the building who fit his description were the survivors of the library massacre. They escaped through an emergency exit around 11:37 and took cover behind the patrol car manned by Smoker and another deputy, several dozen yards away. In other words, Smoker's gun battle with Harris occurred at least ten minutes later than the report claims -- and after ten people had already been murdered inside while the deputies were still setting up their perimeter outside.
How do Jeffco officials account for these discrepancies? By creative interpretations of the physical evidence and by insisting that their officers didn't say what they said.
Broken library windows don't mean the attack had already moved inside by the time Gardner arrived: "The numerous shots fired by Harris and Klebold when they were shooting outside could have easily caused the broken windows," Oeffler says.
Yet none of the 46 witnesses in the library interviewed by police recalled the windows breaking before the gunmen came in and started shooting the place up. (We're talking major damage, not BB-sized holes; Gardner said one window was completely "gone," with "jagged edges around it.") The first indication most of them had that anything was wrong was the frantic arrival of a wounded Patty Nielson, who told the students to get down and started dialing 911. Then they heard explosions and shooting in the hallways, then Harris and Klebold came in and started killing people.
Oeffler maintains that Gardner came under fire from Harris before his 11:26 call for assistance. So why did he talk about shots inside the building and neglect to mention the battle at that point? Well, by the time Gardner got on the radio, Harris had moved inside, so "shots inside the building" is "an accurate statement," Oeffler explains. "To use valuable time and attention to air details about the exchange of gunfire was unnecessary."
Or maybe the exchange hadn't happened yet. Gardner's debriefing by investigators on the day of the attack is clear on this point. The gunman didn't come out of the building and shoot at him until right after his 11:26 call. That's Marton's recollection, too. The 11:26 call was about the shots Gardner was hearing inside the school, before he'd seen a suspect. At that point, he said, all he knew was that "someone's shooting up the school."
The record of Smoker's actions is equally clear. Oeffler's letter insists that Smoker was on the west side of the school by 11:24. Four minutes later, "he aired that the shooter may be wearing a black trenchcoat, information that he obtained from students on the west side of the school."
But Smoker told a police interviewer that he was still in Clement Park, on the other side of the ballfields that stretch north from the high school, when he heard Gardner's call for assistance at 11:26. A motorcycle cop, Smoker decided to hook up with an officer in a patrol car, Scott Taborsky, before getting any closer to the fray. Taborsky reported to dispatch that he and Smoker were taking up a position on the west side of the school at 11:29 -- five minutes later than Oeffler claims. As for the information Smoker aired at 11:28 about the trenchcoated suspect, it probably came from a student named Adam Thomas, who remembers fleeing the shooting on the west side and coming across a motorcycle cop minutes later -- in Clement Park.
Oeffler says the wounded students who took cover with Smoker and Taborsky weren't wounded at all. "Many uninjured students had blood on them from assisting injured students...The deputies began to evacuate the students who continued to come out of the school cafeteria and, moments later, the library."
The mass exodus from the cafeteria occurred fifteen minutes before the library evacuation, not "moments" before. And few, if any, of the kids fleeing the cafeteria -- where no one was injured, according to the sheriff's report, so how did these kids get blood on them? -- would have sought refuge behind Taborsky's patrol car. Not only was it not there yet, but the students were running away from the shooters, to the south and east sides of the school.
Put aside, for a moment, Smoker's own statement that the kids he saw had "numerous" gunshot wounds. Here's what Columbine teacher Craig Place, who'd taken cover on the west side of the school after the shooting started, told the FBI:
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"A police car arrived and parked on the side of the hill. Approximately ten minutes later, students came out and ran behind the police car. Place believes these students came out the back door exit of the library. Place wanted to try to help the students...A police officer told [him] to 'Get the fuck out of here.'"
Perhaps Place is wrong about the amount of time involved. But chances are he had a better idea of the location of the Columbine library and cafeteria than Paul Smoker did that day.
The official version of what happened at Columbine depends on windows that break without anyone noticing them, gunshot wounds that don't exist, gun battles that aren't worth reporting, and cops and bad guys who manage to be in several places at once. Any way you slice it, it's a pretty rank piece of bologna. But that's Jeffco officials' story.
And they're sticking to it.