The Story They Don't Want to Tell

On the morning of Judgment Day, minutes before they launch their deadly assault on Columbine High School, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold complete their last video project together. Guns loaded, bombs and extra ammo packed in duffel bags and trench coats, they take turns staring into the camera, making their farewells to their families and willing their belongings to various friends.

"I know my mom and dad will be in shock and disbelief," says Harris. "I can't help it."

"It's what we had to do," says Klebold.

"That's it," says Harris. "Sorry. Goodbye."

"Goodbye," Klebold echoes.

The tape ends with an image that disappears too quickly for the casual viewer to absorb. It's a momentary glimpse of a sign on the wall of Harris's bedroom, with someone's arm partially blocking the view. Still visible, though, are the letters CHS, a drawing of a bomb with fuse lit and, in big black letters, the word CLUE.

Thirty minutes later, the two teens will be roaming the halls of Columbine, tossing bombs and shooting helpless classmates. Thirteen dead. Twenty-three wounded. Within an hour or so, Harris will put a shotgun in his mouth and excavate the cranial vault -- followed into extinction, seconds later, by Klebold. But even with the countdown under way, the pair can't resist thumbing their noses at their parents, the cops, the whole world one last time. They leave behind a billboard of their intentions, knowing that investigators will find it after it's too late. Here you go, boys and girls: a CLUE for the clueless.

The information about this last-frame image didn't come from inside the Columbine investigation, which has been as leaky as a grass hut in a monsoon. It didn't come from Time magazine, which revealed the contents of the Harris-Klebold tapes in a splashy cover story right before Christmas, or from the thundering herd of reporters who demanded their own screening of the tapes in the wake of the Time scoop.

No, the uncovering of the killers' final message was the work of a small group of angry, frustrated Columbine parents, who were blindsided by the Time story -- published only weeks after Jefferson County officials had assured them that the tapes wouldn't be released. The parents then insisted on having a chance to view the mess themselves. They took notes, rewound and freeze-framed their way through the three hours of Klebold-Harris videos, all the way to the final shot.

For Brian Rohrbough, whose son, Daniel, was killed at Columbine, the tapes answered many questions; they left him with plenty more. A harsh critic of Sheriff John Stone's handling of the Columbine probe, Rohrbough has made numerous requests for information from investigators, many of which have been denied. "It turns out that [the Time reporter] saw just about anything he wanted to see, stuff we've never been allowed to see," he says. "Stone promised to provide us with more, but now he's saying he can't show us anything else."

The furor over the Time story widened an already serious rift between Sheriff Stone and victims' families. Outrage over the release of the tapes has prompted calls for Stone's resignation, and inspired an effort to petition for a recall election targeting him, which will commence in earnest this summer. It's also been a source of embarrassment and consternation within the sheriff's office; morale has sunk so low that a handful of deputies' wives have shown up at recall meetings, eager to lend a hand.

For his part, Stone has publicly expressed regret for the videotape mishap but said that he, too, was victimized. He claims that Time reporter Tim Roche suckered him, violating a confidentiality agreement with his office that allowed Roche to view the tapes on a "background" basis. Executives at the news magazine have denied there was any such agreement; several key sources within the sheriff's office, however, insist Roche promised to keep the tapes out of his reporting.

Yet the Time debacle is hardly an isolated occurrence. Ever since Stone's office took charge of the Columbine crime scene last April 20, the biggest criminal investigation in Colorado history has been a freak show of grisly rumors and leaks, scattershot accusations and official misstatements, ranging from the sheriff's initial announcement of "up to 25" deaths to the very public hunt for additional suspects to the appearance of a snippet of the cafeteria surveillance video on the national news (and, later, on the cover of Time). Just three weeks ago, after the Denver Post ran a copyrighted front-page story supposedly offering a preview of the long-awaited final report on the investigation, Stone felt compelled to write a letter to the families of the dead, assuring them that the Post hadn't been privy to any confidential material.

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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