Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

The Time of Their Lives

It could have been so easy. Had Jefferson County Sheriff John Stone just asked Tim Roche, the Time magazine reporter, for a couple of bucks before he handed over the basement tapes of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, that reporter might be sitting in the hoosegow right now.

According to Justice Jeffco-style, if the magazine had offered fortune rather than simply fame (and a chance to pose in full uniform with the murder weapons) in exchange for Stone's cooperation with its special Columbine package, Roche, his bosses, and his bosses' bosses could be charged with violating Colorado's criminal bribery statute. That's because they would have induced the sheriff to break confidence with his employer -- in this case, the taxpayers of Jefferson County.

By all accounts, Stone's constituents have lost confidence in him over the last ten days.

But, of course, Stone required no financial inducement. He says Time promised to keep the content of the tapes confidential; Time says it promised no such thing. And either way, the result is the same: Stone allowed a Time reporter to look at evidence in the Columbine investigation that no other reporters -- much less the families of the thirteen people later killed by the two filmmakers -- had seen.

Stone gave it away, and now he's paying the price.

In this, Stone is not unlike his colleagues to the north, the Boulder police, who handed over a copy of the JonBenét ransom note to the Ramseys' attorneys, from which point it made its way to a handwriting expert, the pages of Newsweek and, ultimately, on to the Internet, until that note is as omnipresent as Pokémon cards.

But listen carefully: The buck really stopped at the home of that handwriting expert, Donald Vacca, which just happens to be in Jefferson County. And it was there that then-Globe reporter/now-Globe news editor Craig Lewis allegedly tried to buy a copy of the note for $30,000 back in the spring of 1997.

In doing so, a Jeffco grand jury decided last Thursday, Lewis was inducing Vacca to breach a duty of fidelity with his employer, the Ramseys' attorneys -- and so the reporter could be charged with violating the state's criminal bribery statute.

In its December 20 announcement of Lewis's indictment, the Jeffco DA's office revealed that its Ramsey-related investigation "is expected to continue" -- having already successfully snagged former private investigators Regana and James Rapp (who both pleaded guilty to racketeering) and Boulder attorney Tom Miller (who allegedly introduced Lewis to Vacca and whose case is pending).

And where will the investigation lead next? With any luck, Jeffco can somehow connect Lewis to that pesky Time reporter! Perhaps he bought Roche a drink at DIA one day while both journalists were awaiting the planes that would take them back to the big city. Maybe one induced the other to spill the beans on what he really thought of Colorado's Mayberry-level law enforcement.

The DA's announcement also notes that Lewis's indictment was delayed because the Globe "sought to enjoin the grand jury's investigations on grounds that Lewis's conduct was protected by the First Amendment." In other words, Lewis was a reporter trying to do his job -- even if his interpretation of doing that job involved allegedly trying to pay for a document that law-enforcement authorities were already handing out for free. But last Wednesday, Jeffco District Judge Henry Nieto finally issued his belated ruling on the Globe attorneys' argument -- and allowed the indictment to go forth. Nieto stopped short of ruling on the constitutionality of the commercial bribery statute when applied to a working journalist -- "plaintiffs fear that offering a meal or payment of costs actually incurred by a source would trigger the statute...however they have not shown the Court any instance of that occurring" -- and instead determined that the circumstances in Lewis's case were not "exceptional" enough to prohibit "the prosecution of an alleged criminal violation."

The next day, the grand jury indicted Lewis.

On Monday, Lewis turned himself in. As the journalist was being led in handcuffs into the Jeffco justice center, a few miles away, relatives of the Columbine victims were issuing their own indictment of Stone. At the same time the sheriff had been refusing their requests to view the tapes, they said, he was secretly allowing a Time reporter access to them. A reporter who not only saw what they could not, but then reported on what he had seen. And Stone, who'd told these families never to trust a reporter, has only himself to blame for failing to follow his own advice.

Enough is enough, these relatives say. They want Stone to resign -- and they want the tapes to go no further than they already have. They want them to stay sealed even after the sheriff's department releases the results of its Columbine investigation early next year.

Although the families are justifiably angry at Stone's criminally clumsy handling of the tapes, the public does have a right to know what's on them. The tapes contain the only explanation we may ever get for the rage that led to that murderous rampage last April 20. But since the families will be making their request for secrecy in Jeffco -- where Judge Nieto has already ruled that the autopsy reports of the thirteen Columbine victims can remain sealed, has already decided that the First Amendment is less important than the penny-ante indictment of a journalist -- they may get their way.

That would be wrong -- but has anything gone right in either of these cases?

With Lewis's indictment, there are now more than a dozen people who've run afoul of the law in connection with the Ramsey case. None of these culprits comes close to being JonBenét's killer, however.

The evidence against Lewis includes several items seized during a search of Tom Miller's home in Boulder -- where efficient searching of a certain other home on December 26, 1996, might have wrapped up the Ramsey case much earlier, without the need to tie in assorted minor crimes and misdemeanors. Instead, next week marks the third anniversary of JonBenét's unsolved murder.

And in Jefferson County, even though the Columbine killers conveniently removed themselves from the picture, authorities certainly have other fish to fry. Copycat criminals, eleven-year-old Swiss sexual predators, leaks in their own departments. Instead, they went out and hooked themselves a journalist.

They should throw him back.

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun

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